I try not to read movie reviews if I can help it—certainly not before I see a movie, and usually not before I write my own review. But left perplexed after seeing A Ghost Story, I consulted Rotten Tomatoes for a sampling of pullquotes from other critics, just to get a sense of what other people were thinking. To my astonishment, I found a majority of quotes citing (in so many words) a haunting meditation on love, memory, and grief.
Writer-director David Lowery is a longtime art house movie editor and filmmaker trying to carve out a reputation as a visual stylist. His spiritual godfather is Terrence Malick, as evidenced in Lowery’s last personal film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, an atmospheric tale of a bank robber and his girlfriend drenched in backwoods Southern ambience. If it was never clear what all that atmosphere was evoking, the film still had an intermittent sense of visual splendor.
On the other hand, A Ghost Story seems to pride itself on its low-budget, DIY look. The central image in the movie and the poster is a bedsheet with eyeholes cut out of it, like a kid’s Halloween costume. Onscreen, the image is often boxed into a square, framed by wide black bands on the sides, as if the movie were shot on somebody’s phone. You don’t need a big budget, Lowery seems to be suggesting, to tell a good story.
But it’s the storytelling aspect of the movie that fails to materialize. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara (who also starred in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) play an unnamed young couple about to move out of a plain, ranch-style rented house in a semi-rural neighborhood. Strange, unexplained noises and eerie lights sometimes startle them awake at night. But a sudden, not extremely credible twist of fate alters their plans, and their lives.
It’s not giving away any more of the plot, as fragile as it is, to reveal that a ghostly presence in that bedsheet is soon lurking about the premises. Other renters come and go, none of whom can see it. When a woman moves in with her kids, our sheeted entity, and in a fit of pique starts futzing with the lights and throwing dishes around, becomes that family’s poltergeist.
This is sort of an interesting idea, that we might be watching a haunted-house movie told from the viewpoint of the ghost. So is the moment when the sheeted one spies another bedsheet in the window of the house next door. (They communicate, via subtitles, with a kind of special Sheety-Sense.) Later, it was momentarily intriguing to think that each “ghost” represents the accumulated memories of all the previous occupants of its house—which may (or may not) tie into the movie’s bizarre side-trips into the neon future and pioneer past of the house itself.
But while watching the movie, I had no such epiphany. Individual plot points don’t add up. Shots are held way, way too long, as if length would invest them with the weight of meaning. (We spend five minutes watching Mara eat a pie.) And there’s almost no dialogue to give us narrative clues—except for one guy (Will Oldham) who won’t shut up, blathering on about how life and art are pointless, despite the human urge to create something to “make sure you’re still around after you’re gone.”
If this is a hint at the ghost-sheet’s existential despair, shouldn’t it all feel more, you know, profound? If a movie refuses to make linear sense, we expect to be affected on some deeper level that makes it all worthwhile. But Lowery’s narrative obscurity fails to make you feel anything.
Of course, art is subjective: what you get out of it depends on what you bring to it. Message and meaning can be teased out of almost anything, if you’re willing to invest enough time and persistence, searching for that “Aha!” moment. But if a movie obstinately refuses to convey meaning during the experience of watching it—without prompts—then it’s not doing its job.
A GHOST STORY
With Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Written and directed by David Lowery. An A24 release. Rated R. 87 minutes.