It’s a ghost story that’s not necessarily scary and just when you think you’ve cracked the film’s circumscribed logic, it opens up and goes wild in ways at once too wondrous and too preposterous to spoil.
For perfectly good reasons, the literature of grief dwells on the experiences of the living, the survivors who grapple with the pain of loss and the puzzle of absence. But maybe the dead have feelings, too. That, when you think about it, is the premise of a great many ghost stories, and of “A Ghost Story,” David Lowery’s ingenious and affecting new film.
The specter whose story this is — let’s call him Ghostie, since even when he’s alive we never learn his name — indulges in some of the usual haunting behaviors. He knocks books off shelves, makes light bulbs flicker, opens closet doors in the middle of the night and subjects a terrified family to a full-scale, crockery-smashing supernatural tantrum.
The effect of all of this on the viewer is strange and intense but not exactly scary in the expected horror-movie manner. Lowery takes a tried-and-true, low-tech, Halloween-costume approach. Ghostie is a bedsheet with eyeholes. Possibly with some digital enhancement, but basically a 6-year-old’s idea of a ghost.
‘A Ghost Story,’ with Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Kenneisha Thompson, Grover Coulson, McColm Cephas Jr. Directed by David Lowery. Rated R. 92 minutes. Several theaters. The New York Times not provide star ratings with reviews.
And why not? We intuit his moods through the drape and droop of the fabric and infer a brooding, smoldering temperament behind the cloth. This may be because the person inside — or at least the person Ghostie used to be — is Casey Affleck.
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Before his transformation into the title character, Affleck and Rooney Mara — her character is also unnamed — live together in a ranch house in the middle of somewhere. They argue a little about moving, but otherwise they pursue a low-key, harmonious, semi-bohemian existence.
The couple’s brief time together sets a hushed, poignant tone and establishes the dramatic and emotional limits within which “A Ghost Story” will operate. Not that there aren’t jolts and surprises. Just when you think you’ve cracked the film’s circumscribed logic, it opens up and goes wild in ways at once too wondrous and too preposterous to spoil.
Ghostie is not the only one of his kind in the movie. The dead (at least some of them) can communicate directly with one another and passive aggressively with the living. They can travel in time but not in space, which explains the existence of haunted houses. They witness our suffering and fear but have only the most limited ability to intervene, even though they seem to inhabit, albeit invisibly, the same physical world we do.
And time — the ways it can accelerate through years, freeze in moments and defy measurement altogether — is Lowery’s chief preoccupation here, his major theme and his raw material.
For him the calendar and the clock have no meaning, and as the film proceeds, growing darker and stranger, we feel his impatience and disorientation. “A Ghost Story” is suspenseful, dourly funny and at times piercingly emotional.
“A Ghost Story” works so well because it shouldn’t work at all. Movies these days are abuzz with all kinds of paranormal activity, most of it aimed at delivering easy, superficial terror. The scariest scene in “A Ghost Story” may be the most human, when a random guy at a party won’t stop talking about the meaningless of existence in an indifferent universe.
Ghostie’s silence at that moment speaks volumes, and his inscrutable presence is a reminder that fright may be an unjust, irrational response to him and his kind. We fear what we don’t understand, and a ghost is only human, after all.