A Ghost Story might have a ghost at its center, in the most traditional sense, but David Lowery isn’t exactly a genre filmmaker, and A Ghost Story is not a horror film. It’s a quiet, delicate film, one aching with regret and loss, an impressionistic approach to death which eventually reveals itself as a touching elegy for the passage of time. To call it haunting seems like a hacky critical indulgence, but there are few words that better describe Lowery’s moving and reflective feature. It lingers like its wordless protagonist over an assemblage of sorrowful vignettes that combine to speak on something intangible about the sensation of disappearing from the Earth, with clarity and grace.
C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) live an affectionate, if sometimes difficult, life together. Yet when C is suddenly killed one day, he rises from his gurney in the morgue, still clothed in the sheet in which his body was covered. With a pair of jet-black eyepatches, looking like a child’s stock Halloween costume, he returns to his home, where M struggles to find her way in the world without him. As the film goes on, M moves on to another home and another place, where C cannot. His ghost is bound to the home they shared together as the tenants and the years go by, and as C’s humanity recedes further and further into the ether of time and memory.
Those concepts are integral to Lowery’s elliptically unfolded film. A Ghost Story is the kind of film which demands patience, not least because of the static photography and almost entirely wordless storytelling Lowery employs. Aside from one ranting monologue, there are prolonged stretches of the film which unfold with no dialogue and only occasional flourishes of a score, save for C’s occasional wordless exchanges with another ghost in the house next door (captured via subtly humorous subtitles), also searching for something it can’t exactly place. Between this and the film’s sustained shots – like one in which M stress-eats an entire pie for several uninterrupted minutes of screen time – Lowery’s plotting demands attention to the fine details and a willingness to surrender to the film’s heady, dreamlike rhythms.
Lowery’s low-budget, quickly assembled film (it was produced in secret on an abbreviated schedule) is gently devastating, a tone piece about the slow erosion of a being’s humanity and what it means to be irreparably lost. Lowery rounds off the edges of his 4:3 framing, a vintage aesthetic touch that gives the impression of witnessing C’s wanderings through a series of hazy, aging old photographs. “Hazy” is a solid word for much of cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo’s work here, who lends A Ghost Story a necessarily ethereal quality. Palermo’s photography often relegates the ghost to the sides of the frame, omnipresent but often uninvolved. Though the ghost occasionally forces its way into the scene, in fits of anguish or rage or confusion that cause the power to surge and the residents to panic, it’s a passive presence, lending to the film’s larger tone of drifting through existence.