Anyone who has loved and lost—and what adult among us has not?—should be able to relate to the plight of the central couple…given the need for patience for the long, lingering shots that are a signature skill of David Lowery. Lowery, whose “Pete’s Dragon” is a movie about an orphaned boy whose friend Elliot happens to be a dragon, write again about a supernatural character. The title ghost does not act like the poltergeists we’re accustomed to in horror films, at least not usually, though he’s likely to be scary when he gets too upset. “A Ghost Story” is about two young people who are bereft when one dies in an auto accident, his wife—with whom he makes nice-and-slow love to show the audience that two first-rate actors can have wonderful chemistry—is predictably miserable. But not so miserable as her unfortunate lover.
C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) live in a large home in rural Texas, seemingly miles from any neighbor. And that’s the way he likes it. As a songwriter he apparently gets his best ideas when not forced to make small talk with friends or larger family. But M rebels. This is not her lifestyle. Yet C at one point must be so in love that he is game to split and watch how the other half thrives in a more populous location.
After the auto accident, M identifies the body in the morgue, but when she exits, C rises up like Lazarus, except that he is covered completely by a sheet with two holes for the eyes. He resembles either a Klansman or the kind of spirit that is usually portrayed in ghost story parodies. He shouldn’t be miserable—after all, who doesn’t wish to rise after death and spy unnoticed on people like a proverbial, hateful and hated stalker? He stands and watches as his wife, make that his widow, sits on the floor, eats and entire pie, and runs to the bathroom to throw it all up. He would like nothing more than to comfort her, but in his condition what can he expect? Never mind that he is able to throw dishes around when his emotions run wild and make the piano snort when he sits on the keyboard. He is apparently unable to touch her, which is a flaw in writer-director Lowery’s reasoning.
When a Hispanic family move in—the young son being, of course, the only one who can see dead people—he does what he can to chase them out, which is not too difficult for a ghost. After this, events happen fast. A 19th Century couple appear out of nowhere and are killed by Indians, arrows sprouting from their backs, one of them even turned into a skeleton. Then lo, into the future, a whole city springs up in this Texas rural area filled with corporate meetings within steel structures.
“A Ghost Story” has the guts to ignore the usual tropes of Hollywood haunted house movies, instead making the project a metaphor for the intense grief faced by both people after a tragedy. Meant to evoke similar emotions in the theater audience, the film respects the quick editing that are so much a part of almost every commercial and most blockbusters in favor of setting a mood. Maybe the audience can respond, perhaps thinking of their own tragedies, and in fact even intelligent young people who have ever needed to survive a permanent separation from their sweethearts can find beauty and support from the two bereft principals. Realistically, I don’t think that A24 has the ghost of a chance of attracting millennials. Pity.
Rated R. 92 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Director: David Lowery
Screenwriter: David Lowery
Cast: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Liz Cardenas Franke, Barlow Jacobs, Sonia Acevedo, Carlos Bermudez
Opens: Streaming October 3, 2017