‘A Ghost Story’ review: A Powerful Sheet of Meditative Cinema

Writer-director David Lowery makes Casey Affleck shuffle around morosely in a white bedsheet with eye holes for the most part of A Ghost Story. And if this ridiculous idea doesn’t make you chortle even once during its 90-minute run time, it’s because the movie is a powerfully meditative take on love, loss, and the infinite loop of timelessness that wraps lives in a universe that’s constantly evolving, metamorphosizing, consuming and subsuming all that it sustains.

Affleck plays C, husband to M (Rooney Mara), and the movie opens with the couple quibbling about the house that they’ve moved into, and how M wants to leave. For, the house has sounds and acoustics that are freaking her out. Using the opening of Virginia Woolf‘s poetic short, A Haunted House‘Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting’—Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Palermo use it as a fluid template within which to ensconce the experience of something that is haunted and someone who’s haunting.

Casey Affleck between the sheets.

C dies but refuses the doorway to what could ostensibly a way out of this earthly world, choosing instead to go back their house. What does C hope to achieve by doing this? Does he want M to feel his presence, or just be a quiet, spooky stalker, watching her as she grieves him? There’s an unbearably silent, sniffle-sound-tracked scene where M digs into a pie, sitting on the floor, as C’s ghost watches her (Affleck from inside the bedsheet) from one end, and the camera—you, me, the audience—from the other. It’s a four-minute sequence of Mara stabbing, chewing, sniffling, and chewing. You and the ghost are both afraid to move, for fear of disrupting Mara’s grief-driven culinary attack.

The skyline of life, loss, and progress.

A Ghost Story halts, takes stock of grief and the inevitable anger that rises from within after losing a loved one. It’s quiet and haunting, and it’s from the point of view of the ghost. There’s a party scene in the house later on—C refuses to move out, hoping and waiting that M will return some day—while the house gets new inhabitants across the years; in that scene does Lowry unveil his thoughts on death and the explosive effect it has on lives around it. And yet, in the genesis of something original and creative is where life can actually sustain…until the universe decides to end it all…and begin all over again, with the notes of that very creativity that flourished in its earlier version. This, Lowry enunciates via a beer-can fueled 15-minute monologue using the prognosticator (Will Oldham) who has you, the party folks, and the ghost in his thrall—his lines are more than anyone ever else ever says in the movie.

In the meantime, C’s ghost’s trying to scratch at the woodwork and get to a note that M’s inserted before she left the home. Are those the sounds that you hear, at the cusp of dreams and wakefulness, that rustle, that are actually the silent, creaking waiting sounds of a spirit that’s hopeful of a sign of the past? Is that the sound of a ghost that’s refused to move on, while their partner in human flesh have long done so?

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara: life must go on.

The movie provides an aching insight into the everlasting loss that death deals to the living—and the dead. And how trapped the quest for one’s love can be, even beyond the grave, as C sets out on an endless journey of discovery that brings in the inevitability of the circle of time that spins on endlessly. Using a square aspect ratio for the screen to capture the ghost’s—and yours—suffocation and sense of being trapped in this cycle, A Ghost Story is an aching ode to grief and the inevitability of it all. Composer Daniel Hart uses Hans Zimmer-like Interstellar notes to levitate you into the dimensional tension, sometimes using pulsating sounds to add to the atmosphere, elsewhere layering the sadness with operatic chorus.

Director David Lowery uses the camera as his emotional narrative’s stylus, relying more on pauses and studied reflections in every scene, less on dialogue— the camera’s trepidation is as real as yours. And Rooney Mara is his translucent canvas in close-ups, who moves from discomfort to stark grief, to the regular monotony of routine to hope. But it is Casey Affleck, who in that specially designed bed sheet, conveys a sense of having lost all that he’d planned and recorded for, as we all must do some day, aggrieved at plans that’ll never come to fruition. In his white sheet shuffle do you see the heartbreakingly timeless wait for a loved one; for the ones that go away, their heartbreak is multiplied lifetimes over.

A Ghost Story (2017) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

A Ghost Story is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) for some spooky atmospherics.

A Ghost Story
Director David Lowery Time 1h 32 min
Writer David Lowery
Stars Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham
Genres  Drama, Fantasy, Romance