By Noel Vera
A Ghost Story
Written and directed by David Lowery
I’M NOT a fan of David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon — in retrospect the picture probably had too much Disney in it and not enough Lowery to suit me.
But I heard good things about his latest, A Ghost Story, though, so — thanks to the various recommendations, the pull of the intriguingly elemental title, the sparsely beautiful publicity stills (mostly involving a single slightly creepy figure in white sheet gazing at an empty room) — I decided to take a look.
This I liked. Casey Affleck plays the man “C,” Rooney Mara the woman “M”; they live in a house somewhere in suburban Texas and in the opening scene are briefly spooked: they’d heard a sound in the living room late at night, and venture out of their bedroom to investigate.
And then — without even a moment to say farewell — C is gone (car accident) and M has to pick up the pieces. Only C isn’t really gone; lying in the morgue under a sheet he suddenly sits up and (still covered) walks away.*
(Oh, and that sheet used to cover the corpse? Little secret: after the body has been sent to the funeral home or crematorium or a medical school [if it hasn’t stood up and walked away in the meantime], hospitals launder the sheet and hand it to the next patient, living or dead, that needs one.)
C ends up back at their house — and here we notice the eye holes. C’s still silent ghost is an unsettling figure, the way he stands often in the center of a room, the way he shifts (quietly quietly) to follow M as she patters about engaged in the business of living — but eye holes? He’s dead; he doesn’t need to see. The silly holes had the silly effect of throwing me out of a for-the-moment silly film.
It took a while to pull me back in (I’d paid for my ticket after all) and accept (with considerable difficulty) that Lowery, for whatever reason, needed a classic ghost figure — sheet and eyeholes and all — but eventually I managed to focus on the fact that M does move on, does start dating again, does bring her date home to the same bed husband and wife had slept in… and so forth (Lowery isn’t graphic but impolite questions — as they did with the eyehole issue — do pop up in your head). The rare instance when C looks away from M to peer at a neighboring house, he sees a fellow ghost looking out the window at him; subtitles helpfully give us the gist of their non-conversation (“I’m waiting for someone.” “Who?” “I don’t remember.”).
What does it all mean? Lowery doesn’t say a thing and I doubt if C has any clue. At a certain point C is lost in some unspecified city set in some unspecified future (I’m assuming still rooted in the same spot in Texas). The ghost leaps off a high roof, lands somewhere in the distant past; settlers roll forward in a wagon and set up camp. Again pop the questions: Why stop at a future city — because C jumped off a roof? Why did he jump then and not earlier, or later? Couldn’t he sit through the whole thing, from the heat-death of planet Earth to the eventual collapse of the universe back to the Big Bang, starting the cycle over again? And why when he does leap off that roof, does he end up in that specific period in the past? (Why doesn’t he go directly back to the aforementioned Big Bang?) Because this is when the plot of land was first inhabited? Too many questions left unanswered and the rare occasion when they are answered it’s rarely a satisfactory reply — Lowery is trying for an air of mystery but sometimes his kind of mystery is expressive, sometimes numbingly inert.
When the film’s timeline starts whizzing forward then back (H. G. Welles much?) is when the film really soars — in these passages Lowery seems to pull away from his monomaniacal focus on one man’s/spirit’s predicament to take in if not all of time and space, then huge swathes of it, on a scale that evokes Olaf Stapledon if he suffered from a mild case of ADHD. When C crosses his own timeline mysterious phenomena are finally explained and C’s rather kinkily passive voyeurism starts to take on the keen nostalgia and quiet desperation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (“Do any human beings realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”)
There’s power here and poetry, if you’re willing to let yourself see it. I see it — some of it anyway — though I can also see that this was material Tim Burton covered early in his career, with considerably more inventiveness (and if you don’t think his afterlife had any poetry, remember his vision of a vast bureaucracy, as if Dante had collaborated with Chuck Jones: dead-tired caseworkers explain arcane rules to uncomprehending clients, each distinguished by his or her cause of death (one has a chicken bone sticking out his throat; another has tire marks across his flattened body). Lowery’s notions aren’t quite in the same league — they aren’t anywhere near as funny — but they’ll do for now.
A Ghost Story is available on YouTube, Amazon Video, Vudu, Google Play, and iTunes.