Quick Take: With a poignant score composed by Daniel Hart juxtaposed perfectly against Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography writer and director David Lowery’s A Ghost Story created a film with a tangibly grief-ridden, slightly disconnected but celestial feel and a fearless commitment to the ethereal in its movement. A Ghost Story is art in motion and that’s a very good thing.
Don’t let my initial description freak you out. I know lately most movies, even the one’s hoping to stir its audience with its message, are all about the hand-holding and overt reveal. But, if you can give up control – and any expectations, – this film will pull you into its quietly intense story as M (Rooney Mara), struggles through the stages of grief, and C (Casey Affleck), an earthbound ghost, confronts his changed reality (potentially triggering your own existential crisis along the way) drifting in the hereafter instead of moving through the ether into the ever-after. It just won’t talk you through any of it. A Ghost Story all show, no tell.
If you don’t want to think, if you need a movie to do all the work for you, or you just don’t like unapologetically melancholy stories, then A Ghost Story is not the film for you.
But, if you’ve ever wondered what a haunted house looks like from the side of the ghost, or contemplated what would keep you from moving on if you died, or how you’d handle an inexplicable (after)life turn, then A Ghost Story is just the movie to leave you with more questions than answers and ready to work your life to-do list with a vengeance to avoid dying with unfinished business.
C and M are husband and wife. They live in a sparsely populated suburban neighborhood. He’s a musician and we’re not really clear exactly what she does. From the beginning, it’s unclear exactly what state their relationship is in. They seem to be having one of those fights that has few words but big feelings choking up the air. What is obvious is, C and M love each other…and their house may just be haunted. Strange flashes of light and sounds wake the pair deep in the night only to reveal empty rooms and a knocked over picture frame by an old piano.
Just as you think you’ve got the premise all figured out, everything about this movie shifts hard left. Because, shortly thereafter, C dies in a car accident leaving M alone.
By this point, you’ve noticed there isn’t much dialogue – Rooney Mara is extraordinary at giving you her feelings with just a turn of her head or flinch of a facial muscle – but just like any good silent movie (or ghost tale), the story’s all in the movement.
I sat watching and almost physically fighting the desire to rush M in certain scenes only to come to the realization that the pace is set by the grieving and as an outside observer, I had no right to expect them to be ready to move on just because I was. That’s when I realized Lowery’s telling a nuanced multi-layered story in buried under the arc hidden in the guise of tale about M’s choice to linger on this side of the mortal coil.
That’s when I gave in and let the film lead where it would. Time shifts and moves forward, while C remains stuck, it also slowly reveals not only C and M’s past life in this house, but the life cycle of a home/land itself as it passes from person to person. The story is as much about this house, the people and families who pass through it and what (if any) mark we really left in our wake. And as events unfold you realize everything you’ve seen or even heard matters. There are no wasted moments or filler scenes.
It must be said, Casey Affleck plays a character that feels completely authentic and genuine (you can take from that he’s not on the list of people I enjoy watching). His disaffected attitude and detached affect are perfect both before and after his death – although dead Affleck is covered in a sheet and therefore perfect – imbue C with just the right amount of angst to make the revelation of his motivations and feelings truly moving. Rooney Mara’s quiet dejection, simmering resentment, and slow climb out of misery are beautifully framed and are perfect signposts as time passes in a increasing wave of phantasmagoria. The secondary characters subtly play out the supernatural and at turns philosophical (we all have that one nihilist friend who’s a blast at parties and game night) moments elements and hold the frame for this film’s larger themes.
I love it when a movie comes along and reminds me that a film can be both thought provoking and heartfelt without holding my hand. I love it even more when I’m almost at a loss to describe my experience after seeing it.
I also love traditional victorian ghost stories. Seeing a contemporary story about a ghost that held to the rules that make a haunting story mysterious was a delight.
This movie doesn’t work without the music because Lowery is savvy enough to know his audience will bring their own angst and assumptions with them into the theater. Through silence and and song, A Ghost Story strips you preconceptions, forces you to face down your impatience (with life) and leaves all the huge questions we keep hidden in the shadows of our psyche exposed by one tiny slip of paper.
In a sea of movies that are starting to feel the same, A Ghost Story is nothing like I expected.
*I left the theater already searching the interwebs for the score and the movie’s theme song. To save you some steps, you can give it a listen here:
Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Recently deceased, a white-sheeted ghost (Academy Award-winner Casey Affleck) returns to his suburban home to console his bereft wife (Academy Award-nominee Rooney Mara), only to find that in his spectral state he has become unstuck in time, forced to watch passively as the life he knew and the woman he loves slowly slip away. Increasingly unmoored, the ghost embarks on a cosmic journey through memory and history, confronting life’s ineffable questions and the enormity of existence. An unforgettable meditation on love and grief, A Ghost Story emerges ecstatic and surreal—a wholly-unique experience that lingers long after the credits roll.
Cast: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck
Written and Directed by: David Lowery