TO ATTEND ONE’S OWN FUNERAL, hiding in the church gallery, like Tom Sawyer and Joe, is a cherished American boyhood dream, and something close to the jumping-off point for David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, a leap into the blue which lands very far from its point of origin.
The film stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck as a young couple, never named, whose life together in a suburban ranch-style house is cut short when he is killed in an automobile accident just a few feet from their driveway. She says her goodbyes to his cold body on the mortuary slab, but his soul, or something, isn’t quite ready to leave her. In a new, spectral form, a white shroud fixed with two pitch-black eyeholes, he follows her home, where, invisible, he watches over her in her period of mourning. Whatever satisfactions come from such voyeurism—the ghost’s cowl offers no change in expression—are fleeting. The ghost is tethered to his last address; the living move on. She sells the house, and he stays behind to wait for her return, through a succession of new owners, through the house’s demolition, through the total alteration of the landscape. As the movie proceeds, the ego gratification of Tom Sawyer’s fantasy is replaced by a feeling of speck-of-dust irrelevance. Life goes on without me, boy howdy does it ever!
A Ghost Story, shot on the outskirts of Dallas, is the fourth feature by Texas-raised Lowery, who has enjoyed a rapid rise in profile since 2009’s St. Nick, a gauzy, no-budget affair about preadolescent brother-and-sister drifters playing house in an abandoned shell of a home, a film strongly indicating Terence Malick’s influence and not much else. Lowery was soon on to larger projects, teaming with Mara and Affleck for the laborious, corncobby southern gothic pastiche Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), another tale of a man’s tireless fidelity to a woman’s image, and then making the unusual leap to Disney as a director-for-hire on last year’s remake of Pete’s Dragon. This small body of work is united by an interest in generating an atmosphere that has something of the fairy tale about it, while the Pete’s Dragon treatment of boy and his beast suggests that Lowery had been paying more attention to vintage Spielberg than to contemporary Malick’s turn for the kaleidoscopic. (At any rate, it’s more fun watching Lowery play Spielberg than watching Bong Joon-ho do so.)
The scuttlebutt surrounding A Ghost Story, which was rapturously received at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is that this “secret project,” shot on the cheap and on the sly, was Lowery’s back-to-basics movie, a palette cleanser after venturing into blockbuster territory—his Nebraska or Red Headed Stranger or whatever you like. This is true enough in some respects: The movie has long passages without much in the way of discernible dialogue, is sparing and deliberate in its camera motions, and makes use of duration in a way rarely encountered in commercial cinema, as with the real-time sequence of Mara grief binging and purging an entire pie. It literally works with a small frame, shot in the boxy 1.33:1 Academy ratio and projected with rounded corners that may recall home movies or silent films, to which Lowery’s movie can claim some affinity—Affleck’s ghost has a series of wordless, desultory exchanges with a ghost at a neighboring house conducted in subtitles.
To call A Ghost Story a “small” movie, however, would be a deception. As it proceeds, its scope expands from the hushed intimacy of the few early scenes with Mara and Affleck to take a macro view, as Affleck’s silent sentinel witnesses centuries of future and past on the little piece of turf where he lived his last days on earth. Again, Spielberg provides a helpful point of reference, though here it’s not E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) but A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), with its epochal time frame and keening sense of abandonment.
While Lowery occasionally oversteps, underlining the sense of our protagonist’s abandonment with an emphatic, pathetic zoom out, his basic premise—the experience of impotently watching the world move on without you, with nothing but time in which to do so—is a conceptual gut-punch, and the treatment mostly allows him to work around the shortcomings of previous films on which he was lone screenwriter: a lack of humor, overwrought dialogue. He is far more at ease in the world of middle-class creatives here than he was with the outlaws of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and A Ghost Story fairly pulses with a tender regard for the precious fragility of any domestic shelter, from the frontier to the high-rise. After the movie I thought of the Grover’s Corners cemetery in Our Town, and I freely confess that it sent me homeward with a quickened step. (Despite its adventurous form, the appeal to sentiment will mark the movie as too middlebrow for some tastes, though Thornton Wilder was painted with the same brush.)
Mara and Affleck’s childless existence seems easy and unambitious, if not unhappy, sketched in a few scenes as defined by familiar tenderness ruffled by the occasional squabble. When the ghost later goes into a poltergeist fury, smashing dishes around the table of a young mother and her two children who have taken up residence in the house, one can only guess whether his rage has its basis in frustration at not having left some kids behind. Indeed, the ultimate vanity of imagining one’s legacy becomes the subject of an extended monologue, which stands out as an anomaly in a movie short on chitchat. It takes place at a party thrown by yet another new owner, and the speaker is Will Oldham, the recording artist and erstwhile star of Kelly Reichardt movies and Kanye West music videos who holds court on the ultimate extinction of man and the disappearance of all his works and sounds very much like a loquacious refugee from Richard Linklater’s Austin. Lowery’s father is a professor of theology at the University of Dallas, and this moment, which precedes a series of jarring time-line jumps, marks the movie’s shift to a more cosmic, philosophical perspective, suggesting that the writer-director spent plenty of time with his old man’s bookshelf. Among the young couple’s own books, a paperback appears with “The Grand Inquisitor” section of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which gives a clue to the role of Oldham’s speech—it’s a thorough and damning argument for total negation, buried deep in the heart of a larger but still ambiguous affirmation.
The vehicle of this affirmation—if indeed it is that—is a message that the Mara character writes on a scrap of paper and then jams into an interstice in an archway before painting over it, evoking a prayer wedged in the Western Wall. This is mirrored when the ghost suddenly finds himself in the pioneer era, watching the foundations of a house staked out on his home turf for the first time while a little girl places a drawing under a rock as a makeshift time capsule. Once Mara has left the ghost behind, we see him tirelessly scraping at the wall, trying to get hold of the note, a feat only managed once his purgatorial stay has gone full loop-the-loop on the time line. The bit of business with the note is transparently a device, a way to resolve an open-ended movie whose shooting was reportedly heavy on improvisation, but it works despite this, because it’s the right device. In Lowery’s film, the haunting spirit is rendered as a kind of castaway, his isolation here exacerbated by the fact of his abiding, incorporeal presence. Like many castaway stories going all the way back to Daniel Defoe, A Ghost Story is a confrontation with faith itself—and what would a castaway story be without a message in a bottle?
A Ghost Story opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, July 7.