Two days after David Lowery wrapped his big-budget “Pete’s Dragon” remake for Disney, he dove into a tiny personal project back in Texas: “A Ghost Story” cost next to nothing, took place almost entirely in a single house, and called for minimal special effects (the ghost in question wears a bed sheet for most of the movie). The result is a classic example of the “one for them, one for me” strategy that helps indie artists maintain their sanity while also working for studios. The audience for this quiet art-film curio will be decidedly small, but it’s clear why Lowery felt compelled to tell it.
Inspired by an argument the filmmaker had with his wife (he didn’t want to abandon the old house where he could feel the echoes of not only the memories they had shared, but also the past tenants who had inhabited it), “A Ghost Story” anthropomorphizes a given space in time. Sort of. Like an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie translated for Western audiences, Lowery’s film offers an alternative view of the supernatural — and audiences expecting a straightforward horror movie will be disappointed. In fact, “A Ghost Story” could actually be better suited to a museum setting, where this intermittently effective conceptual experiment’s patience-testing approach might be most appreciated.
Although audiences don’t have to wait long for the ghost to arrive, the “story” advertised by the film’s title proves more elusive. In lieu of a narrative, the movie mostly just observes a generic young couple, identified as C and M in the end credits (played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, together again, after Lowery’s Malick-inflected “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), as tragedy transforms their lives together. Statistics say that more than 50% of all car accidents happen within five miles from home, and sure enough, a few minutes into the film, C dies a few feet from his own driveway, killed in a head-on collision.
Lowery doesn’t show the traumatic moment, only the aftermath, which is fitting for a project that is more lyrical than narrative. Framed in a nearly square aspect ratio and shot mostly at a distance, “A Ghost Story” shuns spectacle in favor of subtext, frequently allowing moments to unfold in almost tedious slow motion. In one scene shortly after C’s death, Lowery spends nearly four minutes watching the grieving M devour a pie in silence. As viewers, our natural tendency is to identify with the human actors on screen, but Lowery invites our minds to explore other possibilities — to consider the room, for example, and all the moments this couple may have shared there, or the countless joys and tragedies that have previously taken place within the same four walls that now strain to contain her suffering.
Ever so gradually, M moves on (in one scene, the ghost loses its temper, knocking books off the shelves after an unknown man dares to kiss her in the doorway of their home). Eventually, she moves out, leaving the ghost to interact with future generations of tenants, which include a Spanish-speaking single-mother and a pretentious amateur philosopher who sounds as if he’s stepped out of a Richard Linklater movie.
What does the ghost make of all of this? Lowery doesn’t give us much to go on. Apart from a lone sheet-shrouded caress while Mara’s character is sleeping, the ghost makes little effort to comfort or communicate with his former lover — though he does spend a good stretch of the movie trying to retrieve a folded slip of paper M stashed in the wall before leaving. At one point, the ghost notices a fellow specter in the house next door, and they communicate tersely via subtitles (a cutesy touch, as if borrowed from a Miranda July movie).
Otherwise, the ghost spends most of its time standing motionless and inscrutable in the corner of the room. At the risk of sounding unkind, Affleck has never been an easy actor to read. He’s a low-charisma mumbler who tends to keep his characters’ emotions bottled up (a limitation that Kenneth Lonergan brilliantly transformed into an asset for “Manchester by the Sea”), making him the rare performer who can convey as much with a sheet over his head as he does without. Who is this man, and what does he feel? Is he a musician? (He plays the piano, and at one point even sings.) Were C and M married? How long had they been together before tragedy struck?
After Mara’s departure from the house, Lowery — and his ghost — stick to the location, though the timeline begins to unravel, slipping forward and back through the decades. The ghost bears witness to the arrival of a pioneer-era stagecoach family and the construction of a futuristic skyscraper, presumably all on the same spot (though the movie is a bit vague on that count). It’s during this stretch that Lowery reveals the thing that went bump in the night at the outset of the film, while C and M were first lying entwined in bed — not so much a ghost from the house’s past as a phantom of their own unrequited future. It’s a beautiful idea, original enough to justify “A Ghost Story’s” existence, even if the whole thing could easily have been condensed to music-video length. While Lowery’s actual method of delivery may not be scary, it’s sure to haunt those who open themselves up to the experience.