Although easy to theorize, to analyze as a thesis mounted and then proven over 90 minutes, David Lowery’s new film is more infernal, more rule-breaking, than any such academic beast. It’s a sensualist masterpiece best understood not in reference to its prescriptive logic, but to its descriptive tangibles (or intangibles): as a canvas of embryonic moods and free-floating shudders, improvised shivers and pregnant, primal feelings costumed as both a horror film and a poetically impenetrable work of high-art theory. And a film as sinister as it is sad, and often for the same reason. Like all of Lowery’s films – including Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon – it cannot be solved or deciphered, its holes plugged up by meaning or answered with solutions that tie it down.
But any argument that this film is completely impenetrable is already unnecessarily enrobing itself in the itself-impregnable logic of theory. Although rife with mediations on circular time and existential belonging (a bookshelf provides key insights, and the film doesn’t always do itself favors in its more self-consciously intellectual back-half), A Ghost Story is primarily a tone-poem, not an argument to unpack but a gloriously beguiling, metaphysical menace that seems to exist in perpetual detour from its answer, yet finds truth in its own errancy. This ghost story is a liquid-solid work, slow-going but always in drift, hard-hitting but diaphanous, thematically united but essentially resistant to completion.
When a husband played by Casey Affleck is prematurely killed in a car accident, he wakes up again, now a ghost, and wanders back to the house now inhabited by his lonely, love-worn wife, played by Rooney Mara (and also nameless). And he decks himself out in the most classical duds you could imagine: a white sheet with two eye-holes, a concept of ghostliness painfully mediated by decades of fiction in the genre. For the film’s first-half, before it enters a kind of narrative void and mutates in a more cosmic direction, we watch, and wait, and mourn with the two of them. Although the premise initially sounds like a romantic comedy, the film soon metastasizes into an allegory of shared ennui between two figures, each trapped in a waiting room of unknowingly-shared discontent.
Which means that the horror – although the term hardly qualifies here – is not how Affleck’s ghostly visage might affect or infect the lives of his loved ones – or that another ghost might hustle in on his territory brandishing more malevolent intentions – but that he can muster no such interaction at all, that his attempts to admit himself into their lives are essentially helpless psychic effusions that manifest physically only intermittently. Fear here – the term is too simplistic an emotion for Lowery’s film, admittedly – has nothing to do with the precariousness of sanity, the normative mind dangerously and abruptly unhinged by the unexpected abomination hiding around the corner. Instead, Lowery’s unknown object of meditation is something antithetical: the horrendously known, the quotidian wait that has no destination and thus can’t even qualify as a recess or an intermission in the proper sense. Affleck’s ghostly second-life has no meaningful conclusion to speak of – as far as he knows – and his being is not a middle passage to a new presence so much as an unwound void of nothingness. Rather than a fantasy of transcendence, hoping either to return to the mortal and the material or to leave that world entirely, he is forever entombed in the half-space of just barely being able to interact with the world around him.
These ghosts – there are more than one – are ineradicable, witnesses and observers depleted of activity and actualization, evacuated of a classical narrative’s sense of human agency. Any high-school arm-chair film theorist will jump to the word voyeur immediately, salivating as though they’ve cracked the film’s mysteries wide open, but Lowery’s film doesn’t corroborate or cosign this assumption until its final moments, when it intimates that voyeurism isn’t only a question of power – how we view the other – but the self – how we construct ourselves, and what power relationships remain implicit in that self.
Shorn of narrative momentum and loaded with pregnant ambiguities, Lowery’s film sometimes appears to be a séance for a long-lost style of cinema craft. But for what exactly? Or, given the film’s meditations on time, “when” might be appropriate. With cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, Lowery calls on classical cinema to conjure an existential pallor of true loneliness, wielding diffuse lighting and flat, wide-screen textures to sketch a portrait of collective personal solitude. The look – soft film stock, rounded film-frames – evokes classical cinema and those chroniclers of ‘70s miasma – Malick, most obviously – Lowery is so indebted to, suggesting a continuum with film’s past.
But also peering, like a prophet, into the undisclosed future of independent cinema. Affleck’s unnamed character is a ghost not only because he remains trapped in some liminal, half-present state, but because the film suggests, humanity – in both its macro and micro-conditions – is essentially ephemeral after all. And Lowery’s most direct antecedents in this concern have nothing to do with ghosts in the literal sense. Be it the dueling ‘80s masterpieces of Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, or Terrence Malick’s paeans to cosmic American solitude, or Bela Tarr’s more modernist art-house films which paradoxically seem to exist outside of time altogether, Ghost Story draws from a long well of cinema that divines emotional restlessness even at its most stilled. It accommodates new resonances and textures not in spite of but because of its refusal to move on, using its languorous passages – and all of A Ghost Story is a languorous passage – to uncover untold truth out of a principle of observation rather than action.
In some ways, though, the contours of Lowery’s film are even more bedeviling than some of his forebears, even if they are ultimately less masterful because of their far-reaching missteps. That Lowery’s work elicits such comparisons belies where its true heart lies, far away from the realm of literal specters and far more invested in and indebted to the manifold indeterminacies of human nature and the plasticity of categories like life and death, belonging and alienation. And, in its most unsettling moments, like when one ghost spots another in a window and waves to them, tragedy and comedy. Lowery’s film is a harbinger of demons, even a horror film at times, but its devilish lugubriousness portends malevolence, existential solitude, and winking absurdism in equal measure.
On the latter, A Ghost Story can be teasingly literal throughout, almost mockingly so. It’s obvious that any statement that one of its principals is living – Mara – and the other – Affleck – dead is doomed to be followed with the critics’ “Or was it the other way around?,” so clearly does the film court – and play on – the haunted house film’s classical concerns about the ephemerality and loneliness of life and the (potential) liveliness to be found in death. Perhaps aware of this conundrum, Lowery’s film suggests its own absurdity more than once. The primitive nature of the ghost’s costume self-consciously courts amateurishness, evoking a recently deceased man’s self-parodic idiom for his ego, so wounded after death. Unable to be seen, the white sheet instead parodies the human form, a tragicomic death mask more lonely – and hilariously, dourly deadpan when need be – than ominous. It’s as though the film is begging us to parse out the differences between an art film and an elementary-school play version of the same. Or rather, to beggar the possibility that even the latter, with all its innocence and primordial emotion unmediated by the social restrictions of age, can open-up a window onto the desperate tenderness of existence as potent as any adult could.
But, ultimately, A Ghost Story’s humorous moments aren’t so much indicators of its failure to understand the gravity of its subject matter, or even its successful subversion of the same, but a marker of its free-floating bifocality, its exploratory willingness to yield many tones and admit its wildest digressions. A sense which is all the more apparent as it unfurls toward what can only be described as a cosmic centrifugality, concluding by unraveling and unveiling what it suggests remains concealed in many other film narratives, the unknown futures and pasts which contest the narrative space but which they would dare not peer into. In the final moments, far more experimental than the premise lets on, yet somehow a distillation of its essence, it seems to have walked beyond the pale, and then to have already done-so before we even realize it.