Memories of many a cinematic spook tale waft through David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” a haunting, meditative and cryptic variation of age-old themes.
It’s about love’s link to the afterlife, more Tibetan Book of the Dead than its warm and fuzzy big screen interpretations “Ghost” or “Truly, Madly Deeply.”
The ever-downbeat Lowery casts his “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” stars, Oscar winner Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, as a musician and his wife. The husband ever-so-softly resists his wife’s efforts to move them out of the rundown suburban ranch house that’s been their home. It needs paint. Things go thump in the night there.
But he’s accepted that move, and they’re slowly packing up. Then he dies, and as we see her (Rooney Mara) tearlessly identify the body in the morgue, he rises up, under the sheet, and follows her home.
We have to take Lowery’s word for it that this is Affleck under that elaborate, layered bed clothing. There’s no spoken conversation in the afterlife. No living person sees the sheet, much less the spirit allegedly looking through the two coal-black eyeholes out of it.
The dead husband watches her grieve. He drifts through the silence, with only the wind, wind-chimes and the sound of distant children playing to ease his solitude.
A startling moment — he spies another ghost in a neighboring house, “waiting for someone,” and realize that’s his fate, too. He sees his wife start to move on, and as she does, she slips a note into a crack in the wall.
Then? Oblivion. Or a rental’s version of it. Other tenants show up, and there are endless efforts to retrieve, without corporeal fingers (covered by the sheet) the hidden note and moments of supernatural rage and frustration and a long lecture on the metaphysical by the sharpest drunk at a Texas party.
Lowery shot this in a square aspect ratio, giving the picture the feel of a series of photos in an old family album. He is sparing with sound effects, more sparing with action and incident, giving the actors little to work with other than a whisper and their eyes.
As both Mara and Affleck have made brooding silences their forte, that minimal plot, dialogue and story arc feel complex even when the movie has stumbled into gazing into its own navel. They don’t give us much to cling to, here.
“A Ghost Story” is just cryptic enough to spark conversation, but cut-and-dried enough to make that debate a short one. The odd hair-raising moment — it is a supernatural romantic mystery, after all — doesn’t explain why it was ridiculously saddled with an “R” rating.
Its spooky tone and the odd jolt don’t remedy its chilly remoteness or self-conscious longueurs. But it’s good to be reminded that there’s a reason we cling to the afterlife as a concept and flock to films that indulge that belief, the warm and fuzzy versions, anyway.
MPAA Rating: R for brief language and a disturbing image
Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara
Credits:Written and directed by David Lowery. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:32