Movie review: 'A Ghost Story' explores love and death with challenging brilliance

A tremendous movie that spans centuries and speaks volumes about love and death while hardly saying a word

A tremendous movie that spans centuries and speaks volumes about love and death while hardly saying a word Photo by Bret Curry, courtesy of A24

Few things are both simple and ambitious, but A Ghost Story manages the balance.

The film largely takes place in the same geographical location; there’s virtually zero dialogue; and the lead, who just won an Oscar for Best Actor, is hidden beneath a sheet like Charlie Brown for most of the picture. And yet somehow writer-director David Lowery transfigures this no-frills (and silly at face value) concept into a tremendous movie that spans centuries and speaks volumes about love and death while hardly saying a word.

A Ghost Story jumps around in time quite a bit, but ultimately it’s the story of a man named C (Casey Affleck), whose wife, M (Rooney Mara), wants to move out of their small home. C dies in a car crash outside the house and awakens at the hospital as the old-timey image of a ghost: a white bed sheet with eyeholes.

At a screening of a different movie, people chuckled when they saw ghost C in the trailer, but be warned: If you’re expecting a run-of-the-mill quirky indie dramedy, this is not it. As C returns home, we’re subjected to heavy melancholia on all fronts, and A Ghost Story plays out as an uncomfortable but powerful narrative.

Some people will absolutely loathe this movie. It’s certainly not easy viewing. There’s nothing grotesque or terrifying; it’s simply pacing and deliberate direction that make it a challenge. This is the kind of film that mainstream moviegoers see five minutes of and wonder how anybody could enjoy something so dull.

Lowery lets scenes unfold slowly and purposefully, with stationary shots holding us captive throughout grievous long takes. When M gets home after her husband’s death, she begins grief-eating a pie. One bite becomes two, two become three—Mara wolfs down damn near the whole thing without a camera cut, each bite lending increasing disgust and despair to the moment.

The sound, or lack thereof, makes you feel at once isolated and hyper-aware of everything going on around you. I bought a popcorn, but because the theater was so somber and pin-drop quiet throughout, every bite proved obnoxious to me and everyone else in attendance. I gave up. A Ghost Story is, literally, not a popcorn flick.

It is, however, the latest idiosyncratic and stunning film distributed by A24, a company that’s only been around since 2012 but has delivered some of the most standout pictures of the past few years: Ex Machina, Room, and Moonlight. Only five years in and the name has already become something of a certificate of quality, synonymous with differential and audacious work. Their output feels like something out of another era, when movies could be evocative, strange, daring, and more than anything, difficult, while still being enjoyable.

A Ghost Story hits every one of those points, delivering a haunting and meditative spectacle. It’s hard to watch, but that’s part of what makes it so brilliant—and the payoff is so very worth it. Just don’t buy any popcorn.

A Ghost Story
Director: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, McColm Cephas Jr.
Rated: R
Theater: Uptown Theatre, opens Friday