David Lowery reunites his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara for this idiosyncratic and indefinable work that has some touching meditations on the passage of time but is largely aimless and didn’t quite land with me on an emotionally resonant level. A Ghost Story begins by introducing characters credited as C (Affleck) and M (Mara) as they share a few moments of quiet intimacy and are later awakened in bed to loud noises in another room. The following day, C is shown in the aftermath of what proves to be a fatal car crash but after M visits the morgue to identify her late husband, he awakens on the table and his spirit seems to envelop the white sheet that covers him.
His ghost then saunters back to their home, wordlessly watching his former wife grieve her loss (which, in one instance, manifests itself in an audacious one-take scene of Mara binge-eating an entire pie) and try to land on her feet as she contemplates whether or not to move out of their storied house. When she does eventually move away, the ghost is left in the house as time then begins to progress rapidly and he silently surveys future tenants unnoticed in his increasingly tattered outfit. In his isolation, C’s spirit wanders through space and time to search for answers and a way to move past the seemingly hopeless state of his quasi-existence.
Lowery settles on a more studied pace as he fixates on static shots centered around minimal bits action; one scene that depicts C lying lifeless on a body tray and then eventually rising up runs a little over 60 seconds, a lifetime by modern film editing standards. These long takes lend themselves to a more contemplative experience that allow us to take in every aspect of the frame (including the deceptively intricate costume design) and the patient storytelling juxtaposes poignantly against the fleeting nature of the ghost’s timeline, which seemingly can span years in a matter of “seconds”. To aid this effect, Lowery actually shot the ghost character at a different frame rate (33 frames per second than the traditional 24) than the rest of the scene and created a composite of the two for the final product.
Despite this low-key technical wizardry, A Ghost Story never fully landed for me and I chalk this up to the lack of emotional investment that I had in the characters and their struggles. We only spend a few moments with the central couple before one of them passes on and even in flashback, we’re not given enough detail into their lives together and the connection that they have to lead to some kind of eventual catharsis from their grief. After Mara’s M exits the story, we’re left with Affleck’s character as he sulks around his former house and tries to communicate with a neighboring ghost via subtitle, which probably wasn’t intended to be funny but had me laughing nonetheless.
There are ways in which this general story could have worked quite well but instead of making romance the centerpiece of the film, Lowery gets more existential and esoteric by taking a grander scope to the ghost’s tale and, in the process, loses the immediacy of the film’s earlier scenes. When he does eventually bring things to a close, the conclusion feels oddly unearned and a more saccharine send-off than the more ponderous narrative probably deserves. A Ghost Story showcases some well-honed artistic impulses but doesn’t have a compelling enough central story to make its flourishes come to life.