‘A Ghost Story’ literalizes grief and loss

If nothing else, A Ghost Story imagines what movement happens inside houses when we leave them. But it does more. Written and directed by David Lowery, A Ghost Story stars Rooney Mara as a widow visited by the spirit of her husband (Casey Affleck), killed in a car accident. Its gimmick? He wears a white sheet with eye ‘holes like any kid improvising a Halloween costume. This leisurely paced film, with echoes of Terrence Malick and Hayao Miyazaki, plays with space and time, flitting from the top floors of skyscrapers to the vastness of a wilderness unoccupied by white men in the nineteenth century. A Ghost Story is not so much the story of Mara and Affleck as it is a biography of the undistinguished ranch-style house in which they live. If millions of colorless people die every day, then surely houses deserve obituaries too.

What we learn about the couple’s marriage is also undistinguished. We know little else, not even their names. We know Affleck is a musician because he has shaggy hair; what comes as a surprise is that he composes mildly electronic hymns when the hair creates the impression that he stans hard for the Foo Fighters. Mara has excellent taste in literature (Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy) and no job that I can detect. They fight. They sleep. In a scene of rare delicacy in an American film, rendered leisurely, the couple lie in bed nose to nose nuzzling darkness and themselves. The accident happens. Typical of Lowery’s approach is his filming of the aftermath; how things happen matters less than the results. This may seem less a choice than Lowery’s inability to film such things convincingly; if so, he’s no different from myriad artists finding strengths in weaknesses — for now. At the morgue, his camera waits in an anteroom with the tact of an employee as Mara covers her husband’s corpse with a sheet. She leaves. Lowery lets the audience absorb the fact of the uninhabited, too bright room longer than necessary. Then the corpse sits up.

Lowery also directed 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a stiff and unconvincing film in the grips of Sundance-itis. A Ghost Story, as noted, has hints of Miyazaki, specifically Spirited Away‘s use of a mute, shrouded spirit absolved from caring about conventional notions of goodness and badness. He can do nothing in the material world except watch his wife carry on — barely. Tearing into a pie that a friend had left for her, Mara cradles the plate, sitting on the floor, back against a kitchen counter. From the corner in the half light the ghost watches her. The scene plays without the camera moving an millimeter for three, four, five minutes. Mara shifts from ravenously hungry to absorbing another wave of devastation to nausea; the camera stays in place as she runs for the toilet.

Apart from a scene much later in which we catch a glimpse of dead children, this realization of Mara’s grief is A Ghost Story‘s strongest. Lowery understands the power of reticence — but not, alas, how to keep his score from deafening us, an affliction of modern film. A.O. Scott is right to point out its echoes in Henry James’ ghost fiction but wrong to not mention the degree to which James’ ghosts were outgrowths — manifestations — of the haunted’s psychological ferment. Indeed, A Ghost Story makes clear a world exists within a world. At one point the ghost of Affleck chats with the ghost hanging out at the neighbor’s house; if they’d met for a latte in Starbucks it couldn’t be more amusing in a deadpan way.

Eventually Mara moves out, replaced by a Latino family. Distressed by her departure or perhaps bored, the ghost subjects them to a conventional haunting. The thrown dishes and furniture we associate with poltergeists is literalized by Lowery as a ghost actually picking up these items and throwing them, invisibly. The house is torn down. In its place comes a modern high rise. Stopping short of showing the future, Lowery reaches backward, perhaps more than a century ago before the idea of a house was even a speck in the eye of God. In these sequence he includes a plaintive shot of the ghost as seen from the point of view of God: a forlorn figure in white flitting across an empty field. Also a familiar one. A Ghost Story does not shirk from looking like stills for a disaster insurance advertisement. So much commercial advertisement depends on the longeurs of Amerindie film (the presence of ramrod J.K. Simmons as a State Farm spokesman suggests commercial advertisement also depends on the poaching from Amerindie comedy).

Almost out of movie, Lowery twists the narrative in on itself. The ghost returns to the old house, this time watching Affleck and Mara canoodling — in effect watching itself. This denouement suggests a theory that will comfort those who worship at the altars of the dead: this life is but a larval stage before a non-corporeal fulfillment. Lowery’s two features have worked under this theory too, with growing fluency. Here’s hoping the theory doesn’t harden too thickly into a law.


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