There are a lot of art-house movies about grief and grieving, and most of them are bad. A Ghost Story is so much more than that, but to understand what writer/director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is playing at, you have to forget what you’ve learned from other grief narratives. A Ghost Story will take you somewhere, if you let it. Probably its most impressive quality is that it teaches you how to watch it.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play “C” and “M,” a young married couple living in a quaint country house that might be haunted. We don’t know much more about them, other than C (Affleck) is some kind of composer, that he and M seem to be having relationship trouble, and that the two never, ever smile. A Ghost Story seems to take itself ultra seriously, and Mara and Affleck gloom and glower for all they’re worth, even before a death fractures the narrative.
There are stationary shots that go on and on, with no bookend or punch line, culminating in one that’s already famous: Rooney Mara morosely eating an entire pie. It’s reminiscent of that restaurant scene in Shame where Carey Mulligan sings the entirety of “New York, New York” at one-third speed: Wait, is she really going to eat that entire pie? Yes. Yes, she is.
But while A Ghost Story seems to be setting us up for a film that’s going to wallow wallow wallow in beautiful, tragic grief, it eventually goes full existential. That’s a logical evolution, because it’s hard to explore mortality for long before you start wondering what it all means, down to an atomic level. And there are few things harder from a narrative standpoint than pulling back from a personal perspective to a cosmic one. That A Ghost Story actually pulls this off (and I’m not going to spoil how, even if I thought I could do it justice in words) is a singular achievement.
It’s because you can feel Lowery genuinely struggling with concepts of time and mortality that A Ghost Story’s seriousness becomes more than an affectation. Lowery’s got a big bone to chew on, so what at first feels hopelessly plodding—or like someone trying to mimic the trappings of high art—eventually comes to feel like the real deal.
C, for instance, is a composer, which harks back to a long tradition of “tragic musician” characters, but in A Ghost Story, it’s not just an unconscious regurgitation of an internalized character type. Here, music becomes a useful metaphor for the soul. Music feels infinite, but is it just a feeling? Is it just physics and math, a collection of vibrations and sound that create the illusion of harmony because of the underlying formula, or is there something supernatural in there? Or at least, something ineffable and too spontaneous to reduce down?
It’s hard to say “visual tone poem” without it sounding hopelessly pretentious, but Lowery isn’t afraid of being vulnerable or seeming silly, and A Ghost Story is poetic in the best way—its ideas are little too big to reduce down to simple prose, and its abstraction reflects a grasping towards meaning, not a way to disguise a lack of it. Throughout, Lowery seems intent on finding the proverbial ghost in the machine. He never cheats or offers empty platitudes, and by the time he gets to the final shot, he gives us just enough to believe.