‘A Ghost Story’ finds meaning in one man’s paranormal inactivity

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A man killed in a car accident (Casey Affleck) sort of lives on under a sheet, watching the mourning of his wife (Rooney Mara) in “A Ghost Story.” | A24

Roughly 60 percent of “A Ghost Story” is disturbingly beautiful and spiritually challenging and stuck to me like a memory magnet.

About 40 percent of “A Ghost Story” is maddeningly still and achingly self-conscious and just a little too pleased with itself.

So here we are at three stars.

I have little doubt some of you will be enthralled and moved by writer-director David Lowery’s small film about the vastness and eternity and mystery of life and the afterlife.

Others will grow fidgety in their seats and might well walk out, lamenting the time they wasted on such pretentious nonsense.

I’m not exactly on the fence, but my leap of faith over the fence took me only a short distance past ambivalence.

Here’s the deal. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, who previously co-starred in Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” play “C” and “M,” respectively, a young couple living in a slightly weathered and smallish ranch home in rural Texas.

He’s a musician — or perhaps aspiring musician would be a better description — who tinkers endlessly with his ethereal, New Age-y (and quite frankly, irritating) house compositions at home, his headphones shielding him from all outside distractions. (Including, at times, M.) She has some sort of undefined day job that requires her to leave the house every morning, usually in a rush.

Their union is intimate and loving but perhaps fraying at the edges. M is more irritated than charmed by the house’s “personality,” which includes some pretty clear indications some sort of supernatural entity is floating about. C loves the place and wants to stay. In more ways than one, he’d like things to stay just the way they are.

Very early in this story, C is killed in a car accident that occurs just down the road from their house.

At the hospital, a heartbroken M identifies the body and rushes out in despair.

We stay in the morgue. Lowery’s camera lingers on C’s sheet-covered body.

And then the sheet rises up, with two mournful black ovals where the eyes should be, as if C has donned the easiest and most elementary and most familiar Halloween get-up in modern history.

From that moment forward, every moment in “A Ghost Story” is told from the point of view of C. He walks out of the hospital (deliberately away from what appears to be the classic light leading to the end of the tunnel) and makes his way back to his house, where he becomes an invisible witness to events present, past and future.

C stands mute and unseen as M grieves.

At one point M sits on the floor and consumes almost an entire pie from the center out in what appears to be one unbroken take that goes on and on. And on. This is one of the moments when I was taken out of the film and found myself thinking, Look at that, Rooney Mara is eating a pie in real time. I wonder how many takes they did of THAT scene.

Days and weeks and months go by. When M tries to move on with her life, at one point bringing home a man and engaging in drunken kissing, C flies into a rage and musters the ability to create a ruckus.

Lowery does a masterful job of throwing curves at us. We go from a relatively traditional timeline to fast-forward, and then to super-fast forward, and then back in time more than a hundred years. We see the occupants who move into the house just after M’s departure, we see the house give way to a whole other world, and we see what the property was like in the mid-19th century.

All the while through this circular journey, C is a witness to events, but he doesn’t seem to have any powers beyond the occasional ability to mess with the power or send objects flying. He cannot make himself known. He cannot change his own fate. He is in a limbo of sorts.

“A Ghost Story” draws from various Western religions and their beliefs about the nature of the afterlife, but it has elements of Eastern faiths and philosophies as well. It is a Big Picture film much more interested in providing open-ended scenarios than definitive answers.

The premise and the framework of the story and the photography are much more memorable than the performances, and that feels mostly by design. Rooney does fine work with a limited character, while Affleck is shrouded in that sheet for the vast amount of his performance.

You might argue there’s much acting going on under that sheet. I would argue a body double could have stood in for Affleck for many a scene, and it would be virtually impossible to tell the difference.

There’s only so much acting anyone can do while standing rigid and covered by a sheet.


A24 presents a film written and directed by David Lowery. Rated R (for brief language and a disturbing image). Running time: 93 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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