A Ghost Story is a bit too easy to make fun of. There are too many distractions. First and foremost is the figure of a being in a sheet with two eye holes cut in it, a classic “ghostly” image. Every kid knows what it means and absolutely no one is scared. It’s such a corny visual we expect the movie to be awful before we even look at it, and so we kill time beforehand by making up joke titles: Holy Sheet, Sheet Happens, Spook Softly Now, etc.
Then we discover that it stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, two of contemporary cinema’s dreariest actors. The mere presence of even one of these entertainers is enough to cast some doubt on a film, especially one that requires us to see dead people. Using both of them, for a tale of a man who dies in the first reel (Affleck’s character, off-puttingly named “C”) and then returns to haunt his widow (Mara’s “M”), is really asking for it.
Significantly, A Ghost Story is the second time around for Affleck and Mara with writer-director David Lowery, who cast both of them in the curious romance Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013). Same awkward stillness. Same air of thwarted destiny. So watching this new allegorical restless-spirit story becomes a sort of salvage operation. We’re forced to examine it carefully, searching for a reason to take it seriously.
C and M live in a downscale ranch house, and after he is killed in a car crash his ghost haunts the place, largely for our benefit – he’s invisible to everyone but her, and us. The action proceeds at a deathly pace. She mourns by binging on pie. Silently, he watches her caress a new man. There’s a humorous touch – C’s ghost sees another ghost in the neighbor’s house and they wave to each other. C plays poltergeist tricks on several changes of tenants. At one point, a party guest holds forth on the subject of god. People show up and then pass on. Times change but the ghost remains. All the while, the overriding melancholy of the universe smothers everything in an easy-to-parody syrup of Terrence Malick-style music and camera shots (the starry sky, etc.).
A Ghost Story seems to be telling us that time is cyclical, and that the sphere of existence most easily seen by the living is an illusion. Other, more coherent films have put forth that concept more gracefully, without the man-in-the-bedsheet mute narrator as a guide. We’re naturally leery of bite-size explanations of the transitory nature of being. The only mystery not officially cleared up is the identity of the actor underneath the sheet. Is it Affleck or a stunt double? Brace yourselves for the sequel.