‘A Ghost Story’ Is An Ethereal Arthouse Daydream, In A Good Way

This review originally ran as part of our Sundance coverage on January 24th, 2017. We’re rerunning in conjunction with A Ghost Story hitting select theaters this weekend.

David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is a singular experience — it’s existential and ultra-serious, openly aspires to high art and arguably achieves it. It’s a mysterious little film, the kind I might normally hate for a variety of reasons, but that seems to get better and better as you’re watching it until it ends on its best, most cathartic image. The best way I can describe it is that I’ve never so enjoyed a movie that I came so close to walking out of.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a young married couple living in a quaint country house that may be haunted (hint: “A Ghost Story” is not just a cute title). We don’t know much about them other than that Affleck is some kind of composer, they seem to be having relationship trouble, and they never, ever smile. In fact you wonder if these actors were hired based solely on their ability to carry out tasks without smiling. In one early scene, they embrace yearningly, in a shot that goes on for a good four minutes, where the second two minutes are exactly like the first two. Then there’s a death, which, not surprisingly, does nothing to increase the smile quotient. Following that we get a stationary shot of Rooney Mara morosely eating pie that lasts seven full minutes.

Watching this, I thought, with shades of the Carey Mulligan nightclub scene in Shame, “Holy shit, are we really going to have to watch her eat this entire pie? Yes, yes we are.”

Seven pie-eating minutes with no payoff had me seriously considering leaving early. If there’s one category of movie that I’ve already seen enough of for two lifetimes, it’s the indie drama about grieving (…starring Casey Affleck). Indie filmmakers (and awards voters, possible connection there) seem to find grief a profound emotion, and I just… well, don’t. It feels like an excuse for the actors to look dignified and noble, as if trying to emote hard enough to become actual statues. Grief narratives also feel like a way for an artist to inoculate themselves against criticism. As if because the story involves a dead child or spouse it will be too serious to dismiss. Show some respect, viewer! There’s an imaginary dead kid here! The amazing thing is that it usually works.

Less conceptually speaking, I’m also not a huge fan of interminably long shots of sad people where nothing happens. Even if the actor in question happens to be very pretty and the pie she’s mope-chewing looks delicious.

Yet… and yet… just as I was packing up my things and muttering “Wannabe Tarkovsky ass bullshit…,” A Ghost Story turned a hard corner. It’s actually not even really a grief narrative, or at least, it doesn’t seem to want to wallow. Like Hesher before it (my one notable exception to the indie-movies-about-grief rule, though The Leftovers also belongs here if you include television), A Ghost Story quickly goes full existential. Which seems like a logical evolution for grief — you can only be sad for so long before you start wondering whether any of it matters. It stops being about Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara: sad people, and becomes this tone poem about the persistence of time starring a mysterious apparition. Sad people aren’t really my slice of pie, but wondering why it matters when we’re all going to be pulled apart at an atomic level in a cosmic eye blink and return to entropy is right in my wheelhouse.

Which isn’t to say that A Ghost Story is overly literal or even depressing, quite the opposite. It lays out the facts of existence in unflinching specificity, but seems intent on finding, as the title might suggest, the ghost in the machine. That Casey Affleck’s character is a musician feels somewhat arthouse conventional, but music is also a useful metaphor for the soul. Is music that touches you to your core really just physics and math, a collection of vibrations that sound harmonious because of the underlying formula, or is there something supernatural in there? Or at least, something ineffable and too spontaneous to reduce down?

A Ghost Story employs music as a metaphor for consciousness and spirituality (or lack thereof) in a way that’s clear, but never so on the nose as to feel like a stoned college freshman. It’s poetic in the best way, in the sense of big ideas treated truthfully, and not in the usual way where abstraction disguises a lack of anything meaningful to say. Lowery, who also directed Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon, was the editor on Upstream Color, and it seems to have rubbed off on him, since Upstream Color is the one movie A Ghost Story seems at all comparable to. And in the end I think I liked A Ghost Story a bit better. As abstract and openly existential as it is, the arc of A Ghost Story is less alienating. It feels almost as smart and much more humanistic.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be convinced that a movie needs a seven-minute shot of Rooney Mara eating pie, or that it wouldn’t be better off without it. It’s hard for me to relate to anything so relentlessly self-serious. But even if I could never agree with some of the A Ghost Story‘s creative decisions early in the film, by the end I understood them. And there are few things more impressive than art that trains you how to experience it.