'A Ghost Story' Review: A Beautiful, Tranquil Meditation on Life and Afterlife

David Lowery delivers a poetic statement on the passage of time.

A Ghost Story

David Lowery delivers a poetic statement on the passage of time.

We spend our time on earth sailing through the traces of others. We don’t always see their footprints or smell the residue of their perfume, but we subliminally know someone’s already been wherever we currently are. Hauntingly anchored in this awareness, A Ghost Story is a poetic statement on the passage of time and on eternity that thoughtfully ponders the spiritual, circular history of places and objects. Through the tale of a romantic relationship tragically cut too short, David Lowery’s latest finds a new and heartbreaking angle into the way people fade away and those that are left behind cope with grief.

Sure, there is indeed a ghost in this film. Confused, broken and regretful, that ghost floats around aimlessly and continues to spookily linger in the house he once occupied with his significant other. But don’t let the title (and my shorthand description) fool you: this isn’t your typical, run-of-the-mill haunted house horror film.

Instead, A Ghost Story is a singularly, defiantly unique experiment that deals with massive ideas via modest means. And it is likely to frighten you (especially if you’ve experienced the kind of grief the film portrays), just not quite in the way you might expect. Throw away most of the afterlife-related wisdom you gained from the likes of The Conjuring, Ghost, and Changeling, except for that deep, painful sense of regret. You will need that familiar sorrow and perhaps the kind of empathy Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others finds for tormented ghouls, in engaging with Lowery’s lovely tale.

In A Ghost Story, the aforementioned romantic relationship belongs to a couple played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. The names of their characters aren’t quite identified beyond M and C respectively. We don’t really get to learn much about them; we don’t even know how long they’ve been together. But we see through their togetherness—in their spooning on their couch and intimacy while asleep—enough to gather they’re comfortably, lovingly settled in their cozy relationship. They seem gentle with each other: they softly touch and share delicate, expressive kisses.

It doesn’t all seem like smooth sailing, however. (But what relationship is easy?) For starters, C can’t seem to contribute to the process of mutual decision-making –he is the kind who frustratingly puts off things he doesn’t want to deal with. And the two don’t seem to agree on whether their house –a rural, simple one-story home with a seemingly generic exterior– is the right place for them to reside at. But alas, those worries prove to be trivial ones soon enough, as a car crash claims C’s life out of the blue. But he rises underneath the bed sheet he’s wrapped up in at the hospital and follows M back home.

At first glance (and even on paper), a ghost wandering around underneath a bed sheet can seem notoriously silly and childish. After all, a presence covered in a sheet is hardly an original depiction of a ghost: it is the first image people universally think of about spirits that linger on earth. But Lowery’s costume designer Annell Brodeur boldly embraces this minimalist and commonplace mental image and makes it uniquely her own through a specific design, with a curious volume and a long train that leaves an implied trace whenever C moves. As we experience more of C’s confusion and regrets during his soul’s extended time on earth, the bed sheet astonishingly takes the form of a tortured presence right before our eyes. We internally weep as C watches M move out and sees other families and persons move into (or perhaps invade) the house he once loved and lived in. We understand and even sympathize when he eventually distresses some of the new residents as an extension of his own bewilderment. The sheet does not cover any of it up, but rather elevates the on-screen woe.

But in the end, this film belongs to Mara’s M, who quietly yet visibly wears her grief and sadness on her sleeve in her every move. Lowery carefully photographs M in a studious fashion: his long takes and meticulously photographic lighting and compositions (lensed by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo) injects every object around M with so much weight and meaning that we can’t for a second forget they are all a part of her memories with C. In one (now infamous) scene that Lowery films in one take, she devours a pie a concerned neighbor leaves on her kitchen counter. Mara, in perhaps one of the bravest and most unique depictions of on-screen grief ever, lyrically externalizes a very private, internal pain. As she stabs the pie monotonously bite after bite, her emotions journey through sadness, anger, vengeance and submission in this tranquil meditation on life and afterlife, made for those curious and brave enough to step outside the right now and gaze towards both the past and future with an inquiring mind. If you are among them, you might just find a lifetime of riches inside this deeply, unapologetically melancholic miracle of a film.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.