A Ghost Story is a meditative and sometimes moving cinematic poem about love, loss, grief, death, and the difficulty of letting memories go that are attached to anyplace we call home. This somber, deliberately paced film, written and directed by David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), will likely bring tears to the eyes of many viewers, while producing yawns in others.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, identified in the end credits simply as C and M, play a childless, married couple living in a modest ranch house in Texas. He’s a musician and she’s his muse. She, for reasons never made clear, wants to move. He doesn’t. “Why does this house mean so much to you?” she asks in a flashback late in the movie. “History,” he replies. About 15 minutes into the film, C is killed in a car crash near the house. M views his body in the morgue, recovers it with a white sheet, and leaves. Soon after she departs, C rises from the slab, his body still covered with the sheet -- only now it has two holes cut out for eyes. He wanders back to the rancher, where he watches M try to get on with her life. Days, weeks, months, perhaps even years pass until M moves away. But C stays in the house, which raises an important question: Why doesn’t C follow M? Why does he choose to stay in the house, rather than follow the one he loves? Since he’s a ghost, one assumes he can go wherever he likes.
No one can see the ghost, but he does occasionally make his presence known. He isn’t thrilled when a Hispanic single mom moves into the house with her two kids, so he flings open the kitchen cabinets and smashes cups, saucers, and plates. It isn’t long until they move and some hipsters move in. One of them, played by Will Oldham, rambles on about the meaninglessness of life and how everything, whether symphonies, songs, books, or houses, won’t endure and will eventually be forgotten or destroyed. “You can build your dream house but it won’t mean a thing,” he says. And on and on it goes, sometimes maddingly so. At one point, C peers through a window and sees a fellow ghost in a neighboring house. They communicate telepathically, but we never get any insight into who this other spirit is. The closing credits indicate the person under the other sheet is pop star Kesha, but you’d never know that without checking.
A Ghost Story would have made an interesting and, yes, haunting short film, but stretched out to 93 minutes it becomes ponderous and repetitive. Scenes go on seemingly forever. Do we really need a four-plus-minute shot of M eating an entire chocolate pie? Or a five-minute shot of C and M snuggling in bed? The long takes feel like padding, as do a bizarre flash-forward and an even stranger journey back in time that add little to the narrative. Lowery also shot the movie in the boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with rounded edges, which somewhat resembles an enlarged version of an old-fashioned TV screen. It’s another curious choice in a movie filled with them.
But the main problem is that, for a movie so consumed with memories and the history of a place, we are given precious few scenes of C and M living in the house together before he dies, which makes it difficult to understand his abiding connection to the place. If you really want to watch something moving about home, memories, loss, and the impact they have on a person, seek out the music video for Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me.” It accomplishes more and plumbs emotions more deeply in its brief four minutes and 12 seconds than Lowery does in 93 minutes. Sometimes less really is more.