The appearance of the ghost as thin figure draped in white, with only two gaping holes for eyes, has approached the comical in its overuse, particularly among family-friendly animation, and so the achievement of A Ghost Story is considerable in that it returns that iconography to its roots of eerie sadness. The ghost is eerie in how it glides through its surroundings, completely soundless, and in its featureless form. It is sad because we soon realize that this must be a lonely existence, only able to glide, completely soundless, through its surroundings.
It can interact with those surroundings, as we see in several scenes that approach common mainstays of the horror genre (a scene involving an unseen specter opening cabinets and tossing objects from them, for instance) from the point-of-view of the ghost itself. We understand, by this point, what makes a ghost angry, although it is important not to jump ahead. What is more important to writer/director David Lowery is how the ghost became one and, particularly, who it was in life. We come to know the man only as "C" in the credits, played by Casey Affleck in a performance that asks much of the actor in the physical department.
Affleck reciprocates generously, providing a convincing performance as C before his death as a music producer and independent musician closed-off from much human interaction, and so does Rooney Mara as his companion, known only as "M." C dies in a freak car accident at the end of their driveway, and M mourns in ways that feel specific to her character - grief-eating an entire pie during a five-minute scene of building power, lying on the floor so still she could be dead as she listens to a song he produced shortly before that accident, possibly falling for another man, dividing possessions equally and leaving that damned house.
What follows is a curious tale that spans far beyond C's observations of his companion moving on as we soon learn the reasons why he, as a ghost, might haunt his place of dwelling rather than a specific person. Tenants move in: a Spanish-speaking family (whose time living there is cut short by the cabinet-opening scene mentioned above) and a series of party-throwers (in which Will Oldham plays a dime-store philosopher who observes that our time on Earth is limited and finite and pop musician Kesha Sebert, usually known only by her first name, appears as a partygoer easily charmed by a magician). C observes this with increasing bemusement and, at times, anger and sadness.
It is astonishingly effective, especially when the film ultimately embraces a supernatural angle that will not be revealed here. The point of the shift is to emphasize the entirety of time, to examine its impact upon these characters (as opposed to merely the central one), and to ruminate on the very essence of existence. It does so through movement, patience, and introspection. The cinematography closes in on the characters by way of a 4:3 aspect ratio, with rounded edges that even close off some of the wide shots and long takes. The music, including an original song that intrudes at two crucial points in the story, is haunting. In fact, "haunting" describes well the whole of A Ghost Story, both in its intent and in its cumulative effect.
Casey Affleck (C), Rooney Mara (M), Liz Cardenas Franke (Linda), Barlow Jacobs (Gentleman Caller), Sonia Acevedo (Maria), Carlos Bermudez (Carlos), Yasmina Gutierrez (Yasmina), Will Oldham (Prognosticator), Rob Zabrecky (Pioneer Man), Kesha Sebert (Spirit Girl).
Directed and written by David Lowery.
Rated R (brief language, a disturbing image).
Released in select cities on July 7, 2017, and in wider release on July 14, 2017.