NEW YORK: A fatal, off-screen car crash interrupts the picturesque, suburban lives of a young married couple in David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” marooning the deceased husband (Casey Affleck) in a kind of purgatory as a watchful, mostly benign ghost. The movie is, inevitably, “the one where Casey Affleck spends most of the movie with a bedsheet over his head.” With two holes for eyes, he resembles a last-minute Halloween costume. Such a simple, sheeted specter – as Hollywood ghosts go – is tantamount to a radical deviation from prevailing orthodoxy.
There’s no CGI. Nobody gets slimed. A shirtless Patrick Swayze doesn’t make a single pot.
No, the most audacious display of cinematic extreme in “A Ghost Story” is a scene where the ghost watches his widowed wife (Rooney Mara), in a fit of grief and hunger, eat pie. For five minutes.
“A Ghost Story” may sound like a punchline. Such is the curse of movies with covered-up movie stars and marathon pie-eating scenes, but it’s an exceedingly earnest, meditative movie about big ideas – the nature of time, life’s impermanence – that goes well beyond the intentionally dime-store costume design.
It’s an often transfixing, frequently unsatisfying fable that blends the fantastical with the banal in a way that the naturalistic/surrealistic Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weeresethakul might, were someone only to hand him a bedsheet.
Lowery shot the film secretly between Disney movies – after directing the rebooted “Pete’s Dragon” and before developing a new “Peter Pan.” It was designed like an audacious indie experiment, made with little expectation of triumph, that reteamed Affleck and Mara – of Lowery’s lyrical outlaw romance “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”
With fragmented scenes and leaps through time, “A Ghost Story” does have the electric feel of something made off the radar and without a net. The early scenes between the couple – known only as M (her) and C (him) – have a cosmic backdrop, interspersed with shots of the sky at night, the humming of a quivering score of violins and the lush sunlight of Texas golden hour. A strange noise wakes them at night, and Lowery lingers on the couple as they hold each other in bed, kiss softly and drift back to sleep.
On a beautiful, buzzing morning, we find the husband slumped against the wheel outside their home. In the morgue, Lowery holds his shot on the body after the wife and doctors depart. A few moments later, the sheet-covered body sits up, walks down the hall, opts not to step into the light, and meanders his way home.
His purpose is far from clear, even to himself. He patiently, stoically observes his wife’s grief. Time moves slowly and then in giant leaps. She eventually moves out, but he stays. A family moves in. Years pass.
It’s the lost ghost – an increasingly sad figure, even without facial expression – who’s haunted. When he looks out the window, he sees another ghost in the neighboring house. They communicate telepathically, with subtitles for us mortals. It can’t even remember why it’s there. Increasingly grand jumps through time follow, beyond the house’s destruction and back to the pioneer family who first rested there.
The question at the center of “A Ghost Story” is What endures? If nothing does, what’s it all for? The centerpiece scene, one of the flashbacks, is a party at their house where one friend (actor and musician Will Oldham) delivers a dark and searing monologue in which he declares that everything you’ve ever stood for, everything you’ve made “will go.” Children will die. The pages of books will burn.
“A Ghost Story” makes a gentle peace with its own futility. It, too, will one day perish, and it’s perhaps fitting to contemplate such inevitable ends at this particular movie-going moment – when cinema often feels like a wayward ghost of itself.
It’s possible to admire “A Ghost Story” for its pursuit of something profound, while being totally unmoved by it. Just as with “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” there’s a layer of calculated artifice that is draped, bedsheet-like, over the whole enterprise. Little of it hits with any feeling, and the long pie-eating (or not) shots only allow time to ponder the filmmaker’s designs, which are always front and center.
“A Ghost Story” is what it says it is, and it may well haunt you. It won’t scare you. It doesn’t even say “boo,” but glowing light and ghostly soulfulness linger on like a quiet, scratching presence that won’t leave you.