Nobody who makes a serious movie about ghosts ever depicts his spirits as people wearing bed sheets with eyeholes — that’s a cut-rate Halloween costume, right? But David Lowery does exactly that in the Sundance film “A Ghost Story,” which premiered at Sundance in January. And somehow, this guy in a sheet breaks your heart.
Lowery shot the film in 19 days immediately after finishing his acclaimed big-budget film “Pete’s Dragon,” but “A Ghost Story” is a defiant return to the artful indies that Lowery made before Hollywood came calling, “St. Nick” and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”
Like the latter film, “A Ghost Story,” which was picked up by A24 prior to the festival, stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Neither of them say much: She’s not talkative, and he’s hidden beneath that sheet for most of the running time.
Shot in the 1:33:1 ratio, which almost reads as square to viewers, this is a languorous art movie that glories in stillness. Lowery’s camera settles in place and stays there; sometimes he comes in tight and stays put, but more often he backs off and frames the action — or, just as often, the lack of action — from a discreet distance.
The film starts with Affleck and Mara as a young couple, identified only as C and M, who are preparing to leave their rented rural home and move to the city. Given the film’s title, and the point in the movie at which it happens, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that C is killed in a car accident; we watch him lying on a gurney in the morgue, covered with a large white sheet, when he sits up and walks out, making no attempt to dislodge the sheet. (Although he does apparently cut the eyeholes, which are there in the next scene.)
C returns to the house and sees M dealing with her grief. At one point, she comes home, looks at a few cards and letters, then cuts and eats a pie that her landlady has left for her. Sitting on the floor, she finishes almost the entire pie before she runs into the bathroom and throws up. C watches without moving, and so does the camera — the entire sequence is filmed in two lengthy, static shots, conveying immense turbulence while exhibiting stillness and quiet.
On paper, a description of that scene — Rooney Mara eats a pie and throws up while Casey Affleck watches through the eyeholes in a sheet — sounds ridiculous and comic. But in that astounding sequence and throughout this lovely, disquieting film, Lowery takes a fundamentally comic premise and makes it sad and touching.
His ghosts are figures of loneliness and longing; they can knock things over and go bump in the night, but they’re fundamentally passive and helpless. C has a wordless (but subtitled) encounter with another ghost in a nearby house (we know it’s a female ghost because her sheet has a little floral pattern) in which the other ghost tells him that she’s waiting for someone to return to the house. “Who?” he asks. “I don’t remember,” she says.
About 40 minutes into “A Ghost Story,” M leaves the house for the last time; it’s hard to measure the time for sure, because if you can surrender to Lowery’s pacing, time feels suspended. It seems as if the movie could stop right there, and exist as a haunting (no pun intended) miniature.
But a new family moves in, C is disturbed, and he waits for answers that may never come. We do get a party scene featuring a marvelous Will Oldham, as he tries to deliver the meaning of life in a five- or 10-minute monologue that probably contains more words than the rest of the movie. His conclusion, which is probably true and probably beside the point: Everything humans do will eventually fade and disappear.
In this final stretch, C hangs out in the house for centuries (literally) and, in a sense, the movie gets a bit like its main character: It doesn’t really know when to quit. But if you’ve bathed in its rhythms that long, it’s not hard to enjoy soaking in them a little longer, as C dwells upon searching for (albeit passively) a way to let go and find peace and acceptance.
He’s accompanied in that search by Daniel Hart’s gorgeously evocative music, which stands out as part of a brilliantly effective sound design.
And no, you never stop noticing that it’s Casey Affleck in a bed sheet with eyeholes, or wondering why we’re emotionally affected by the journey of a guy in a kid’s Halloween costume. That’s the marvel of “A Ghost Story”: it’s a strange, sad, fragile little thing that should make us snicker, but instead it fills the screen with grace and beauty.