A Ghost Story is not your average night at the cinema. In fact, it’s barely a movie at all. Purposely filmed in 1:33:1 aspect ratio to inform the audience of its unusual nature, the latest piece of visual poetry from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints filmmaker David Lowery furthers emphasizes his obsession with love and the fragility of life through an almost unnervingly intimate portrait of eternity. It’s less of a traditional narrative and more an exploration of what might be waiting on the other side of this unpredictable experience called life that will almost certainly turn off most moviegoers, but those who surrender to the journey will be enraptured with each passing moment.
Casey Affleck and Mara Rooney reunite for the first time since Saints as a married couple identified in the credits as C and M. Their relationship is expressed through the moments we see them share, often without uttering a line of dialogue. They hold each other whenever possible, sharing insights on their childhood because they already know everything about one another in the present. What little dissonance does seem to exist in their otherwise picturesque world revolves their around their secluded home. M wants to move. C isn’t ready.
Then suddenly, C dies in a cash crash off screen just feet from their home. It’s a horrendous event captured in a quiet way as if to reflect the quiet life now lost. M visits the hospital to identify the body, and for a moment she considers touching C’s hair one last time, but eventually leaves in silence. The camera lingers for what feels like minutes on the quiet room until C, now shrouded in a white sheet with black circles where C’s eyes should be, rises once more. It’s the exact image you have in your head right now, the same worn by the Peanuts gang wore in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but somehow Affleck’s presence gives it meaningful depth. He shuffles the hallways, taking in his new being, and instead of proceeding into whatever may follow this life he chooses instead to return home.
As time begins to pass, C stands quietly in the corner as M works her way through the grieving process. An extended sequence early on finds M coming home to find a pie from a concerned friend, which she then proceeds to eat in its entirety in what appears to be a single, uncut take. She years to feel anything for the longest time and C watches it unfold, including her first kiss from unfamiliar lips and the day she decides to move. You expect M to follow, watching his one love attempt to move on with or without ever succeeding, but that isn’t the story being told.
When C exits the film, A Ghost Story transforms from an already loose narrative into something far more ambitious and thought-provoking. A new family moves into the home, one that only speaks Spanish, and M watches from the corner as their lives unfold. They eventually move on and the house deteriorates into a party pad for drifters until it is eventually destroyed so new construction can begin. M watches it all, silent and largely motionless, before further traveling back and forth throughout time for what will no doubt feel endless to some viewers. It’s as deep as you want it to be, but if you’re willing to let Lowery guide you he offers a perspective on the afterlife with have never experienced before in cinema.
A Ghost Story is perhaps the artiest art film we will see all year, and because of this it is hard to recommend to even the most frequent moviegoers. Death is one of those topics most would prefer to not even think about, but by choosing to watch this film you are positioning yourself to catch a glimpse of a potential afterlife that might not align with any thoughts you’ve previously had. The vision Lowery gives us is one of haunting beauty and crushing isolation where we the audience are tasked with questioning the meaning of life and love in the grand scheme of existence. It’s a meditation on the importance we give things and the pain of loss strewn across all of time, just like the tiny particles in our bones that were once part of stars somewhere deep in the heavens of space.
To be honest, it is all a bit terrifying as well, but when the credits rolled I felt fortunate for the experience. I have never seen anything like A Ghost Story, and though I’d be happy to never see it duplicated the film left a profound impact on me that spilled into the days and now weeks since I saw it. I don’t know if I will ever fully shake this film, nor do I know that I would want to if I could.