At first blush, "A Ghost Story" has the silliest premise—and visual—that a movie could hope to perpetrate upon a discerning cinephile, suggesting a filmmaker that’s either a prankster or pretentious (or both).
In fact, he’s neither. Writer and director David Lowery is a poet.
"A Ghost Story," his experimental indie that defies convention at every turn to profound effect, is one of the best films of the year. It’s haunting, but in poignant ways.
The ghost of a man (2017 Best Actor Oscar winner Casey Affleck) remains in the house of his widow (Rooney Mara), and his apparition appears as the oldest of Halloween costumes: a draped bed sheet with two black holes for eyes. And it’s meant to be taken seriously.
In the hands of Lowery, this risky abstract conceit about a couple that’s never named (he’s credited as "C," she "M") is sincere, even humble, and deeply moving. Told at a languid pace that absorbs rather than bores, "A Ghost Story" is a movie of contemplative empathy.
The narrative unfolds by lingering on experiences, not constructing typical plot beats. An early, lengthy overhead shot of the couple sleeping is indicative of Lowery’s observational technique. They’re snuggled together, peaceful. They gently kiss, eyes still closed. It’s not sexual; it’s intimate.
After he’s passed, M sits on the floor of their kitchen, eating an entire pie that a neighbor has given to her. It’s a raw, unbroken five-minute take that subtly portrays the first stages of grief. C’s ghostly form watches from a distance, unseen by her.
This experiential approach is an extreme counter to more common, heavily wrought tales of loss. Lowery gives room for grief to breathe, to be lived in, rather than driven by contrivances or sentimental clichés.
Grieving people don’t want to hear trite encouragements. They just want somebody to be there with them. "A Ghost Story" reciprocates that in cinematic form. In the wordless quiet of this widow’s lonely struggle, it’s saying to a kindred viewer, "I understand. You’re not alone."
But then, the movie shifts and becomes more about the ghost than the wife left behind, raising the stakes of how C’s spirit will continue to haunt this house, and this space, moving forward.
By the time it’s all over, you realize that this ghost’s story has followed a three-act structure and taken you places you weren’t expecting. The film remains patient and experimental, but the plot gains a narrative propulsion that makes it more compelling, and accessible.
It also becomes more ambitious in scope, including an ethereal perspective on how the ghost perceives time, giving this small-budget endeavor an air of the epic. There’s philosophy, too, including a monologue about the nature of God and art, and how divinely infused creations transcend time to sustain humanity.
Lowery also employs a few "ghost story" tropes, like how a ghost manifests its presence by moving objects. They create legitimate scares, but they’re used to emphasize C’s own melancholy and grief, and the existential hole of needing resolution. The ghost, it’s worth noting, is more than just a bed sheet. It drapes and flows elegantly, tailored to move with supernatural grandeur.
There are flourishes of Terrence Malick here, as there were in Lowery’s "Ain’t Them Bodies Saints" (which also starred Affleck and Mara), but it’s a reach to make stylistic comparisons to help describe this singular movie. That’s part of what makes "A Ghost Story" an unexpected masterpiece—it’s difficult to recall having ever seen anything like it.
For more from Jeff, read his review of Netflix’s "Okja."