Your typical ghost movie is about humans terrorized by the supernatural.
But “A Ghost Story” turns that tradition inside out by taking the point of view of a silent, mournful spirit that clings to its earthly home hoping for, well, who knows what?
David Lowery’s film will be hailed as profound and damned as pretentious, sometimes in the same breath. Love it or loathe it, we’ve not seen anything quite like it.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara (they also starred in Lowery’s 2013 rural noir ballad “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) play a couple living in a rather shabby tract home on a sparsely populated street that’s not quite rural and not quite suburban.
We never learn their names, though the film’s credits identify the characters as “C” and “M.”
The scruffy C is a musician who spends his days at a piano recording complex songs with layers of sound. The two seem content enough right up to the point where he is killed in a traffic collision at the end of their driveway.
In the hospital morgue M identifies his body, which is then covered with a sheet. The camera lingers on the lifeless form for a full minute — at which point the corpse sits upright, still shrouded, and shuffles through the hospital.
Some audience members may break out in laughter. The ghost looks exactly like that cheapest of Halloween costumes, a white sheet with eye holes cut out. (Though looking into those holes we see nothing but black.)
Returning to his former home, the voiceless spirit observes M as she puts her life back together. We lose all sense of time — days, weeks or months pass in a series of silent scenes. When M begins dating, the ghost shows its displeasure by making a few books fly off the shelf.
It should be noted at this point that while we see Affleck at the beginning and end of the film, for the most part he’s covered from head to toe. In fact, there’s no way of knowing if he’s actually the performer under the sheet. That said, the body language astoundingly evokes the ghost’s thoughts and emotions. It may be one of the greatest physical performances ever captured on film.
Eventually M moves out, but the ghost appears stuck, ambling among the home’s subsequent inhabitants as the years pass.
And in the weirdest development in a supremely weird movie, the action flashes back to the 19th century, where a pioneer family attempts to carve out a life on the prairie. At this point you begin to wonder: Is time linear or does it double back on itself?
All of this sounds slightly daft, and it is.
It is also deeply moving, a meditation on longing and loneliness that creeps into your bones and won’t be shaken off. Daniel Hart’s simple but haunting musical score provides an aural underpinning for cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo’s images (he also shot “Rich Hill,” the excellent 2014 documentary about a small Missouri town).
Does everything about “A Ghost Story” make sense? No, and that’s one of its strengths.
It’s more of a subconscious flow than a conventionally plotted tale.
But stick with it and you will be treated to what very well may be the year’s most unique cinematic vision.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
“A Ghost Story’
Rated R for brief language and a disturbing image.