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The Sheet of Life

The new David Lowery film, ‘A Ghost Story,’ stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck … sort of. And it’s about a ghost … but it’s not strictly a ghost story. And despite its minimal trappings, it’s a profound rumination on loneliness, loss, and time.

(A24)
(A24)

Time keeps on slipping into the future in A Ghost Story. It’s a movie that seems to move simultaneously in slow motion and hyperspeed. Individual scenes are inflated with dead air and drag to the point of inertia, but the whole thing flies by with the serene velocity of great short fiction, like a novella that you read in a single sitting because it would seem like a betrayal of the author’s talent and trust to break your concentration. Working in a stark, spartan style that could be mistaken for minimalism — especially in the summer of Transformers: The Last Knight and Baby Driver — writer-director David Lowery turns a fairly standard 92-minute running time into a version of eternity. In contrast to Roger Ebert’s famed dictum that "no good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short," A Ghost Story suggests that some borderline-great ones may be both at the same time.

Lowery’s slow-cinema side is on full display early on in the film, particularly in a pre-credit sequence that shows Rooney Mara — playing a character who is never named but identified in the end credits as "M" — lugging a wooden chest down the walkway of her one-story house to the curb. The distance of the camera and the drawn-out duration of the shot suggests a certain detachment from the action, and it transforms her chore into a sort of solo slapstick routine, one that goes from boring to funny to mysterious and back again. Because we know that M shares her home with her musician boyfriend (Casey Affleck as "C"), we wonder why he isn’t helping her with what is obviously a physically demanding task; in the absence of dialogue explaining the status of their relationship, her grueling solitude speaks volumes.

It’s also a perfect visual overture for a film that makes loneliness its subject. A few scenes later, the vague, encroaching sense of separation between Affleck and Mara’s characters — present even in hovering, ominously under-lit shots of them lying together in bed — gives way to concrete tragedy: He’s killed in a car accident that’s pointedly left off-screen so as to fit in with the overall aesthetics-of-aftermath that Lowery is cultivating (we see the wreck, but not the crash). When M goes to identify her partner’s body, there’s such a grim sense of finality that it feels like the film is ending rather than beginning. But Lowery is just setting us up for a startling image of rebirth: After M leaves, the camera lingers long enough to see C sit up beneath his hospital sheet and walk out of the morgue under his own power.

This is where the ghost story of A Ghost Story begins, and as hauntings go, it’s designedly benign; the all-white-everything get-up evokes Michael Myers’s makeshift costume in Halloween, but a better reference point would probably be It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. In a Guardian article positing the newfound prevalence of "post-horror movies" — loosely defined by author Steve Rose as films that eschew certain conventions at the risk of alienating an audience that’s grown accustomed to them — Lowery acknowledged his "longstanding desire to make a movie with a guy in a sheet," while denying any explicit affiliation with the horror genre. Rose’s taxonomy, which also ropes in It Comes at Night, The Witch, and Get Out, is fascinating but flawed; far as I’m concerned, this video is the only true post-horror masterpiece.

Affleck spends about 90 percent of his screen time in A Ghost Story cloaked in his shroud, a tactic that’s very close to a stunt — it must be the first time that an actor has followed up an Oscar-winning role with what is effectively an invisible performance. And at first, even viewers attuned to the movie’s melancholy wavelength may be impatient, uncomfortable, or bemused — or some combination of all three — as C returns home and, invisible to everything except the camera eye, bears mute witness to his partner’s mourning process.

The moment when A Ghost Story will either lose you or hold you for good comes shortly after his homecoming, when C watches M eat an entire chocolate cream pie that’s been left for her by a friend — a bout of emotional eating that once again plays out in fully mesmerizing real time. (The uncanny atmosphere of suspense that goes with this gesture is heightened by the knowledge that this was supposedly the first time that Rooney Mara had ever eaten pie.) It’s as if Lowery is daring anybody without the stomach — or the attention span — for a plunge into the deepest recesses of grief to check out. That includes M, who disappears from the film almost immediately thereafter, leaving us to watch C as he just hangs around, compelled to remain within the walls even as he shows the ability to move between them.

This vision of the afterlife as a kind of involuntary house arrest derives from a long tradition in supernatural fiction and horror films built around the idea of "unfinished business," but Lowery skillfully reverses or erases most of the expected tropes that go with such tales. Because Affleck’s face is never visible, we’re never sure exactly how Truly, Madly, or Deeply he misses his partner; because M moves out, there’s no chance for things to devolve into a hipster-Sundance variation on Ghost, with lovers trying to reach out and touch each other across an ephemeral divide. Instead, he makes us feel the weight of C’s isolation, first in an empty house, and then when sharing the space with a series of new tenants, who are variably aware of his presence and seen too briefly to ever come into focus as protagonists.

It’s here in this purgatorial stretch that the true invention and ambition of Lowery’s filmmaking becomes apparent, and the boxed-in claustrophobia of C’s plight — and of cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo’s strategically squarish compositions — opens up further than could reasonably be expected. Just when we’ve gotten used to A Ghost Story’s punishing pace, the director starts jumping through time with a slipstream propulsion that recalls both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life — lofty inspirations that exceed his grasp, but by less than you might expect.

The dislocation that C and the audience feel as years and then decades get compressed within the space of single edits is clearly not meant to be specific to his being a ghost; what Lowery is after is the out-of-body sensation of feeling one’s life passing by in fits and starts. It may be a fear of being too abstract that compelled him to include an extended monologue by Will Oldham, as a guest at a house party being held at some unspecified point after M’s departure, that pointedly articulates these themes (or maybe he’s making a sequel to Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, which also featured the erstwhile Bonnie "Prince" Billy in night-school-philosophy mode) but his rant about the basic impermanence of things is frightening all the same.

Where the film goes from there is not worth spoiling except to say that the script’s play with chronology is even more daring and multidirectional than it seems. The Möbius-strip elegance with which A Ghost Story eventually ties itself off reveals Lowery to be as much an engineer as a conjurer, although he does permit himself a bit of magician’s pride in the last shot, which all but calls for a "ta-da!" and a final bow. And after this gently dazzling magic trick of a movie, he deserves to take one.