Having been described as haunting, hypnotic, poetic and profound, A Ghost Story might be all of these to some, however there will be just as many who find it boring, silly and hopelessly pretentious. A haunted-house story but definitely not a horror film by any stretch of the imagination, this latest feature from writer-director David Lowery is a minimalist no-budget musing on love and longing in the afterlife. With no action, no special effects and very little dialogue, Lowery is asking his audience to join him on an artful, elegiac journey that traverses grief and loneliness; a journey that slows to a crawl for much of its duration and will prove a test of patience for anybody who finds a wordless 4-minute shot of Rooney Mara eating a pie to be a somewhat underwhelming experience. Of course, personal perspectives and belief systems regarding life after death will also influence how viewers respond, while the biggest hurdle the audience might need to overcome to embrace Lowery’s broader vision is accepting a wordless person with a sheet over them as the main character.
That’s right, no digital trickery from Lowery to create the ghost that inhabits the house in which Rooney Mara’s character, identified only as M in the closing credits, lives alone following the death of her musician boyfriend C (Casey Affleck). Rising from a table at the morgue, C’s ghost walks through the hospital and then across the fields to the non-descript house where the couple lived, the sight of the happiest and most painful memories of his life. Draped in a sheet with cut-out holes for eyes, C watches over M who, of course, is unable to see him. Lowery has claimed that it was actually Affleck under the sheet for much of the filming, but it is hard to imagine that being the case. C watches M grieve – which includes the aforementioned scene in which M sits alone on the kitchen floor devouring a pie left by a friend before scurrying to the bathroom to vomit – but when he tries to embrace her, she can’t feel his touch. When another man enters her life, C demonstrates his displeasure by knocking books off shelves, an act that perhaps only serves to strengthen M’s resolve to move out of the house, an issue that they had argued about prior to C’s death.
The apparition remains in the house after M’s departure, communicating silently (their dialogue presented via subtitles) with another ghost in the house next door, both seemingly waiting for something/somebody to return. As such, when a new family moves into the house, C freaks them out and sends them on their way in quick time. With neither Affleck nor Mara having much to say throughout the course of the 90 minutes, more than half of the dialogue in the film comes courtesy of Will Oldham when he holds court at a party being held in the house; C watching on as the carefully choreographed revelry ensures that none of the partygoers bump into him. When the house is ultimately demolished, C stands firm and continues to inhabit the high rise tower that is built on the site.
Whilst Lowery’s approach with A Ghost Story could be seen as risky, particularly given that his last directorial effort was Pete’s Dragon for Disney, it is hard to imagine that he is expecting this to appeal to a wide audience. Certainly Mara and Affleck, who worked with Lowery previously on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints have shown a predilection for less mainstream projects and this is another example of their willingness to explore unconventional roles. The presentation in a square aspect ratio really only serves as a distraction, but it is another example of Lowery’s desire to do things differently. The director asks a lot of his audience and those who embrace this exploration of grief and loneliness may well find themselves transfixed by what transpires. However, for others, the whole experience might prove to be a somewhat perplexing experience.