There’s a scene about midway through writer/director David Lowery’s modest, experimental supernatural tale A Ghost Story that’s simple in conception, but will absolutely deck you in execution. Our female protagonist, who is never referred to by name but is played by Rooney Mara, has lost her partner, and is still in a state resembling shock. A friend has come by, as friends often do, and left her something to eat; a pie, covered in foil. After a moment or two of busy work, she takes off the foil and looks at it, and it’s immediately clear that she’s just gonna eat that fucking pie, as if it’s it’s going to fill the hole in her heart. (We’ve all been there.) And that’s what she does, stuffing bite after bite into her face; she occasionally stops to take a breath or drop a tear, and then she pushes on.
It’s a quietly revelatory portrayal of grief, a moment so profoundly private, it feels like we shouldn’t be there (and frankly, neither should the other presence in that room). To stay with it is a risky act of filmmaking, but that’s what’s so remarkable about A Ghost Story – that in spite of its marquee stars and its writer/director’s recently vaunted-by-Disney profile, it is an honest-to-goodness experimental movie, a story that starts going in one direction and unexpectedly veers into unexplored territory, rewriting its rules as it goes.
This also makes it a tricky movie to talk about without unraveling the delicate thread that holds it together. Suffice it to say that there is a couple, and they seem about average – they love and fight in equal measure, and there are enough weird noises and refractions of light that you believe, from the title, that there is a ghost in their home. And then something else happens. The way the movie turns there, without the kind of clichéd run-up and action we’ve come to expect, is the first tip that Lowery is going off the grid; he tells his story in aftermath rather than incident, which is not, to put it mildly, standard operating procedure.
Yet even then the story doesn’t proceed as expected, or in the way one might predict; it’s not a story about special effects or “hauntings” or Ghost-style interactions, but about grief and observation. It’s a film so muted it’s borderline alienating, but there is real pain and power in its silences, and how they’re punctured; there’s a moment where Mara listens to a song that transports her back to her past, the music functioning as a time machine, and Lowery uses cinema in much the same way. He ends up traversing days, weeks, longer in his cuts and pans, as we’re locked in to a house that’s literally full of life in one cut, and stripped bare, riddled with decay in the next.
Lowery’s narrative can move breathlessly forward and then tumble backward; the most clichéd expression of boredom is “like watching paint dry,” but there’s a bit of running business about peeling paint away, and it’s an astonishingly potent image. You’re never quite sure what he’s up to; he’ll give us long stretches where nothing is said at all, and then turn the whole movie over to a long, philosophical monologue by Will Oldham, playing a character we’ve never seen before and never see again. (All told, Oldham probably has more dialogue than either Affleck or Mara.)
Yet Lowery’s confidence as a filmmaker never wavers, and as a result, neither does our attention. He pairs his powerful imagery with Daniel Hart’s bottomless, mournful score, and gives us moments of absurdist humor, and will then pivot to a flash of emotion so heartrending, it leaves you agog. A Ghost Story should not work. It sounds like it won’t work. It works.
“A Ghost Story” is out today in limited release.