If the sight of newly-minted Oscar winner Casey Affleck scurrying around with a bedsheet over his head sounds more like a farce than deep-feeling cinema, then feel free to skip A Ghost Story. If, however, you want to see what writer-director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) can do with nothing but unfettered imagination and an abiding faith in the possibilities of movies, then trust us: This is a poetic and profound experiment you do not want to miss.
Affleck plays a musician identified only as “C”; Rooney Mara plays “M,” the woman who shares a Texas house with him until he’s killed in a head-on collision. Rising from a table at the morgue, C shows up back at the place that held his happiest and most painful memories … except now he’s a ghost in a near-comical sheet with cut-out holes for eyes. He watches M grieve – she can’t see him – and, a scene that seems to last forever (it’s just four minutes), observes his rail-thin girlfriend gobbling down a pie until she vomits. C tries to embrace his lady love in her bed; she can’t feel his touch. When another man enters her life and kisses her in the doorway, C knocks books off shelves.
Eventually, M moves out – can you blame her? The apparition doesn’t follow; it’s the house that holds him. So he stays and watches as their home is sold and resold, watching as others occupy it. Lowery switches back and forward in time from pioneer days to the age of skyscrapers while maintaining the same location. The effect is transfixing.
That’s the movie. No action. No budget. No special effects. Oh, C does wave to a ghost he spots haunting the house next store, and he keeps trying to dig into a wall to find something M left there. But there’s no conflict. The Transformers crowd, hoping for violence or horror, will bolt for the exits in the face of such nonstop stasis – Lowery’s influences run more to Terence Malick and Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul than Michael Bay.
Alternately child-like and artful, A Ghost Story holds you in thrall – get into Lowery’s rhythms and the movie will touch you deeply. Mara has always been expert at expressing emotions without dialogue, and Affleck is a master at it – Manchester By the Sea proved that indelibly. Having worked with Lowery on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, both actors are simpatico with the lyrical cadences of his technique; their minimalist performances are, in a word, mesmerizing. The evocative camera work of Andrew Droz Palermo, as the paths of these characters fold into a dream, adds to the power of this hypnotic and haunting film. You’ve never seen anything like it.