"A GHOST STORY" — 3½ stars — Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Kenneisha Thompson, Liz Franke, Barlow Jacobs; R (brief language and a disturbing image); Broadway
The title of director David Lowery's "A Ghost Story" is about as concise a description as you're going to find for a surreal and beautiful film that explores a kaleidoscope of themes and issues.
In essence, the film is about a young musician named C (Casey Affleck) who lingers at his rural home as a ghost long after a car crash takes his life. As the film opens, C and his wife, M (Rooney Mara), are living a quiet life in an aging Midwestern rambler. They are very much in love, though there is some tension in their relationship that isn't explored until later in the film.
The home doesn't look much like a haunted house, but a couple of eerie quotes that lead the movie set the tone for a late-night disturbance when C and M hear an unexplained banging noise from the upright piano that predated their arrival.
Soon after, C is killed in a car crash. In the morgue, he rises from his bed, still draped in the long white sheet that covered his body. A glowing portal briefly appears, but C doesn't enter. Instead, he makes his way back to his home — still covered in the sheet — where M is making her way through the grieving process.
From here, "A Ghost Story" shifts into observation and contemplation mode as C — invisible to everyone around him — peers out of mournful blacked-out eye holes at a world that is moving on without him. He watches M come and go for a while before she remodels and sells the home to a young Hispanic single mother and her two children. They are replaced by a group of hard-partying hipsters with some amusing if fatalistic thoughts on the nature of the universe.
There is a primary arc to the story, but Lowery offers up a number of threads and possibilities for audiences to explore the meaning of the film. C finds he is able to influence the physical world when his emotions are sufficiently intense, and he learns he isn't the only deceased apparition in the neighborhood. Eventually, Lowery even works time travel into the narrative, giving "A Ghost Story" a kind of rural "2001: A Space Odyssey" vibe.
At the same time, the ponderous and contemplative nature of "A Ghost Story's" plot is consistently underscored by the quirkiness of its protagonist, who spends three-quarters of the film lingering stoically under a bed sheet. The humorous element of the film helps to diffuse its emotional weight, and actually enhances its visual beauty.
"A Ghost Story," which was featured back in January at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is a really beautiful film to watch. The entire film is shot in an almost square aspect ratio, which forces the audience to focus on visual content in a different way from a traditional widescreen format. Early on, Lowery uses long takes and sparse dialogue to create an emptiness in its tone — in one shot M sits on her kitchen floor and eats almost an entire pie. Beautiful and creepy compositions of C lingering in the background of different shots around the house are haunting, but never truly scary. Even when C encounters the aftermath of a plains massacre during the time-travel portion of the film — whose images are probably the best justification for the film's very light R-rating — "A Ghost Story" never really goes after a horror tone.
The whole experience adds up to a unique meditation on the afterlife, attachment to places and people and the meaning of existence. Audiences looking for a B-movie scare will be sorely disappointed, but if you come in prepared for "A Ghost Story's" surreal and ambiguous nature, you'll be rewarded with a unique and rewarding piece of work.
"A Ghost Story" is rated R for brief language and a disturbing image; running time: 92 minutes.