I’m ready to declare 2017 the year of the art house ghost movie. Both Oliver Assayas’ “Personal Shopper” and now David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” are mundane, quietly eerie supernatural dramas about grappling with grief and finding closure. “Personal Shopper,” which came out in March, starred Kristen Stewart as an amateur medium desperately trying to make contact with the spirit of her recently deceased twin brother. Meanwhile, “A Ghost Story” takes the point of view of a grieving ghost stuck in a purgatorial state.
That ghost is/was C, (Casey Affleck) a musician who died in a sudden car accident. After his widow M (Rooney Mara) goes to identify his body at the morgue, the ghost…wakes up. He stands up and proceeds to walk out of the room with a white sheet still covering him. Out in the hallway, a portal containing a blinding white light materializes in front of him, presumably a door to the afterlife. However C chooses not to go and instead walks across roads and fields, back to his suburban house to see his grieving wife. What does he do? Does he try to make contact with her? Does he help her make pottery? No, he just watches her, still dawning that white bed sheet, now with a pair of eyeholes, reminiscent of a child’s Halloween costume. This low-tech costume choice is oddly effective--creepy, mysterious and refreshing.
Of the two films, “A Ghost Story” is more experimental and abstract. Aside from containing very little plot and action, it’s primarily composed of lengthy single take shots that sometimes go on for five to seven minutes. This deliberate visual style mimics C’s onscreen behavior and desires. He wants to spend as much time as he can with M before he passes on. He wants to cherish every moment, every movement and every grief inspired breakdown. There’s a palpable, aching feeling of longing and sorrow pulsing through these lengthy scenes.
Admittedly, these scenes can be frustrating at times. There’s a much talked about scene involving M grief eating an entire pie while C watches from beyond that’s kind of painful to sit through. It’s moving and Mara’s performance is subtly devastating but it’s also a…really really long scene of a woman eating an entire pie. A really long scene. I admit I zoned out during the picture a few times. “A Ghost Story” may be the longest hour and twenty-seven minute movie I’ve ever seen.
“A Ghost Story” can be difficult to endure but after the first thirty minutes or so, the movie really picks up steam. Time itself accelerates, while space rapidly changes shape. Days, years, decades, centuries pass before our eyes in a matter of seconds. Before you even have a chance to blink, a small suburban house materializes into a mighty skyscraper. It’s exhilarating and beautiful. “A Ghost Story” goes from being a claustrophobic film about a wandering soul (yanked out of his body too soon) trying to find closure with his beloved, to a more expansive, ambitious affair. It morphs into a lyrical mediation on the fluidity of time, the nature of legacy, the significance a certain place (a cherished family home, a plot of land) can hold for someone, the vastness of the universe and our minuscule place in it. Lowery manages to pack quite a bit into such a brief run time.
The film becomes one long, surreal, mind-bending montage. Time keeps pushing forward until suddenly it stops and starts over from the beginning, taking our white sheet-wearing friend with it like a current pushing a stick down a river. If you were bored and frustrated with the film before, you won’t be able to take your eyes off it now. “A Ghost Story” can be rough going, especially at the beginning but once it changes into this bigger, more thought provoking film, it’s endlessly absorbing.