David Lowery’s A Ghost Story reunites him with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, who starred in his Malickian lyrical-outlaw potboiler Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It’s not surprising that Lowery would want to re-up with Mara and Affleck, who since their work for him have gone on to an Oscar nomination (Mara, for Carol) and an Oscar win (Affleck, for last year’s Manchester by the Sea). But part of what makes A Ghost Story so beguiling, and so much more interesting than Saints, is the way Lowery uses these talented actors: For long stretches, he doesn’t. In the contemporary summer movie season, where special effects and branding are often sold over movie stars, Lowery has made a movie more boldly post-actor than any recent blockbuster.
It starts out intimate, but familiar: A couple, unnamed by each other but called M (Mara) and C (Affleck) by the credits, nuzzles and sulks in a small house they’ve rented. Eventually, we realize that M wants to leave, while C, a musician, would prefer to stay. And then, after minutes on end of hushed semi-confrontation (and a few eerie noises), C dies in a car accident, right in front of their home. There are hints that Ghost Story will become a long-take study in grieving, like the way Lowery’s camera lingers on M, alone with C’s body in the morgue for a few minutes. The camera fixes on her as she fixes on the body, tucks the sheet over her husband’s lifeless head, then suddenly rushes out. The camera stays. And after a little while longer, C’s body, still sheet-covered, rises up.
It’s not literally his body. This wandering figure, with eye-holes cut in the sheet to make it resemble a hastily assembled Halloween costume, is C’s ghost, invisible to the world around him. As he walks around the hospital where his body remains, he’s presented with what looks like the opportunity to cross over into some kind of afterlife. He hesitates. And then he’s back at the house, watching his widow.
From this point, Affleck is essentially out of the picture. This is not meant to denigrate or ignore his role as a physical performer, but simply to report that, based on the movie and the director’s own comments, that role is minimal. In a Q&A following a screening at BAM CinemaFest in Brooklyn, Lowery admitted that their first try at a simple ghost sheet was too limp and inconsistent; to get the iconography of the sheet with eye-holes, the filmmakers had to rig something more complicated underneath. Though he initially had designs of Affleck “acting” through his physicality under the sheet, the job became more technical. For much of production, Affleck was essentially performing the careful work of a subtle puppeteer. Lowery makes no illusion of the preciousness of this performance: When the time came for reshoots, and Affleck wasn’t available, they went ahead without him.
It may or may not qualify as a spoiler to note that by a certain point, Mara leaves the movie, too. Before she does, there’s more grief-study stuff, some of it extraordinary, like a single-take scene where M devours the better part of a pie left for her by a friend. The sobs and the throwing up, we’ve seen in movies about grief. The raw hunger, though, especially the way Mara plays it (largely crouched on the kitchen floor), feels newer.
Mara is perfect for this part – watchful, serious, in quiet turmoil. When the camera stays on her face as she drives herself away from her former, now packed-up home (the camera does a lot of staying in this movie), the range of emotions allowed to pass over her is remarkable, and moving.
And then we’re left with just the ghost.
The ghost of C cannot or will not leave his home, and his home moves on without him. Time goes on. Sometimes what C does qualifies as genuine haunting; sometimes, it’s more like hanging around, and not all of the residents notice whatever wisp of a presence he brings with him. If the movie’s cuts are any indication of his point of view, he doesn’t necessarily notice them, either. Time jumps ahead, the movie presses forward, and here Lowery’s Malick homage, with some Tree of Life grace notes, starts to feel more transporting than his earlier Badlands riff. Even more so than other recent Malick movies, where the actors (including Mara, who starred, to the extent that anyone stars, in Song to Song) see their performances cut up and reassembled into a combination of gestures, moments, and Malick tics (anyone who playfully looms over their lover on a bed seems guaranteed a spot in the final cut), A Ghost Story detaches itself from traditional performance. One lead drifts out of the movie while the other stays under a sheet as the vastness of time unfolds in front of him.
It’s not a silent movie. Will Oldham turns up at one point to philosophize at length during a hipster-y house party, and C encounters other humans roaming his former halls. But the way the movie elides traditional acting (Mara often without a scene partner; Affleck under a sheet; Oldham given a free-standing monologue) is the key to the movie’s unusual power. This isn’t exactly a tearjerker, but it does have a certain intensity, not in spite of its sparse population but because of it. Though Lowery shoots in the boxy 1.33 aspect ratio and rounds off corners presumably to better resemble a faded but still-vibrant photo album, A Ghost Story feels much bigger than its minimalist characters. Part of this is enhanced by his square-ish frame, which makes the images look taller. But it’s more than that. The movie gathers the force of time and accumulating memories as it moves along, and that’s reflected even or especially when the compositions get more desolate. Its wordless sections remind me, in a weird way, of the all-CG wide shots in apocalypse-porn movies like 2012. Nothing in A Ghost Story is so physically vast, and it’s not designed to thrill. But like those Roland Emmerich-size collapsing landscapes that are one hundred percent animated yet still heavy with a kind of grandeur (however cheesy), there are sections of A Ghost Story that feel de-peopled, even when there are actual human performers on screen.
One difference (among, ah, many) between Lowery and Emmerich is that humanity hangs in the air of his acting-free zones. Effects-driven movies have been circling the idea of an actor-free, or at least actor-light, spectacular for years now. A Ghost Story gets closer than most, especially in its second half. And like the under-sheet version of C, it brings a heartbeat to a place where it shouldn’t logically exist. It’s an eerie kind of magic.