Review: 'A Ghost Story' sticks with viewers long after movie ends

By MICHAEL O'SULLIVAN Washington Post - Updated: July 26, 2017 at 2:40 pm • Published: July 26, 2017 0
photo - Rooney Mara in "A Ghost Story." 
CREDIT: Bret Curry-A24
Rooney Mara in "A Ghost Story." CREDIT: Bret Curry-A24

By the standards of the traditional ghost story, "A Ghost Story" isn't much of one. By the standards of the moody art-house meditation on love, loss, memory, forgetting, attachment, letting go and the nature of eternity, it's pretty darn great.

OK, maybe not great. But bold and strange in that indie way. Poetic without being pretentious and at times deadpan funny, this ballad of a lonely poltergeist is certainly not for everyone, but it is for some. Have I mentioned that it's shot in a squarish aspect ratio, with rounded corners, and bathed in the soft glow of nostalgia, like a Hipstamatic photo? Don't let that put you off.

Casey Affleck, playing a music composer identified only as C in press materials, is supposed to be dead for much of the film, hiding under what amounts to a white sheet - or something closer to a banquet tablecloth in size, given the way it trails him like a wedding gown - with two eye holes. After a bit of Terrence Malickian prologue, in which we're shown a collage of seemingly random, fragmentary snippets from C's life with his significant other, M (Rooney Mara), he dies, rather suddenly, in a car accident that manages to be mildly shocking and entirely expected, though it occurs off camera.

From that moment on, in this fable written and directed by David Lowery of "Pete's Dragon" and "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," C haunts M with the persistence of a dog waiting for his absent mistress. Or, rather, he haunts the old house where they lived together.

He watches and watches as other, newer residents of the house come and go, even engaging in a little poltergeist activity to spice things up. Part of the time is spent silently communing with the female ghost next door, whom C spots through the window. They stare at each other - soul to soul - speaking through wry subtitles.

There is little spoken dialogue. Most words in the film occur during a house party, mutely witnessed by C's spirit, as a guest expounds on the impermanence of art.

Is that the point of the film? It's never clear. More important: Can a ghost "die" and come back to haunt itself? Lowery pushes the tropes of the haunted house film past the breaking point, creating something entirely original if not profoundly unsettling. But long after the closing credits, "A Ghost Story" manages to be stick with you.

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