The first thing you need to know about A Ghost Story is that there is an eight-minute scene in which Rooney Mara does nothing but eat a pie. That might be a deal-breaker for some, but it shouldn’t be because there is also a shot in which we literally watch paint dry. At least its writer and director, David Lowery, has a sense of humor. He also has a sense of awe, wonder, and curiosity, which is to say that A Ghost Story may be the best film of the year.
Rejecting categorization at every turn, A Ghost Story is an elliptical drama, a tender meditation on grief, and a naturalistic work of science fiction that bends time and space. It opens modestly, with our pair of lovers, C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), holding each other in bed while they kiss and eventually fall asleep. In this long, unbroken shot, Lowery and his actors display love more realistically than a million grand gestures ever could.
When C is killed in a car accident at the end of their driveway, the film shifts gears, using its tranquil, observational style to create something bracingly new. Lowery doesn’t depict the crash that kills C; he shows us its eerie aftermath. We never see M’s twisted, crying face as she receives the news; we see her in the morgue identifying the body, her face as still as her husband’s. It’s a radical narrative technique that eschews the plot points that typically comprise a film and asks us to look for meaning in asides, preambles, and codas.
In other words, A Ghost Story is a horror movie in name only. The real terror in this story is man’s helpless, hopeless existence. C returns home as a ghost, represented by a tactile, old-fashioned sheet with two holes cut out, and bears witness as M grieves, moves on, and eventually moves out. He watches as other residents come and go, presumably over the course of years. One evening, some hipsters are having a party, and an enthused misanthrope explains to the group the impermanence of life, how even the most lasting parts of our humanity (Beethoven is his example) will one day be stretched into nothingness by our expanding universe. We’ve heard this rant before, onscreen and off, but never has it been so thoroughly voiced and felt so acutely true.
Confined to the home he never wanted to leave, C continues to wait and watch as his house is destroyed and new houses are built. New worlds, too. Time bends in on itself, and he ends up in the past, and finally back in our present. Remarkably, Lowery accesses this grandeur without the aid of his lead actor’s face or voice, only his own soaring vision, as well as a vital, masterful sound design. When Rooney Mara eats that pie, you can hear and feel every scrape of metal on ceramic. As the ghost drifts silently through his home, Daniel Hart’s achingly coercive score evokes the suffering of an entire species.
Just about everything in A Ghost Story feels alive and new. With little use for the cinematic conventions that humans have relied upon for over a century, it makes every romantic comedy, superhero flick, or Oscar-bait tearjerker feel like a relic from an ancient past, and boy, has it arrived just in time. You’ll watch with your eyes wide open and at some point realize that, for the first time in a long time, you have no idea what’s coming next.
A Ghost Story opens Friday at E Street and Bethesda Row Cinemas.