"A Ghost Story" is a minor movie miracle. It does something utterly ridiculous and it not only gets away with it but it builds on it to make the movie one of the most conceptually audacious of the past few years.
It's about a suburban couple played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. They are, it seems, about to move out of their house. But then in an offscreen automobile accident, he dies.
She is required to identify the body. What you may notice at this point – but is important in the film – is that background music has been minimal to nonexistent.
And that's how it gets away with an absurdity it had no business getting away with. What we see is Affleck, as the dead husband, grieved by the end of his life with Mara and returning to their house together covered by a white sheet with two holes in it for his eyes.
At least we assume it's Affleck. We have no way of knowing. All we know is that one of the two major actors in this lyrical meditation on grief, time and death is now supposedly under what could be a makeshift children's Halloween costume as a ghost. (Remember the delicious scene in Spielberg's "E. T." when the little astral traveler is disguised by covering him with a sheet?)
We should laugh derisively. And some people no doubt do as they watch the film. But even if they do, laughter dies almost immediately. There's humor in "A Ghost Story," but it is on a subtle, sublime level.
Instead, the film's lack of music is part of the deadpan device it gets away with – this ridiculous device that presents us a character playing a ghost. This is not "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," or Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore's "Ghost." This is something else; when there is no music to cue our feelings, what we're cued to understand is an emptiness – something devoid of feeling as time passes.
This is a movie about being haunted. But the character being haunted isn't a living person haunted by the dead; it's a dead person haunted by the living. What we're watching through the life of a ghost is, astonishingly, a story about the inconsolable grief of the dead.
We see that ghost in long takes of sad and respectful silence as he haunts, unseen, the beautiful wife he loved. He – and we – watch her devour an entire pie that has been left in sympathy by a friend.
It's what people do at times of death; they cook food for the bereaved so they don't have to do it themselves. A pie – something sweet – is a way of sending love to someone in emotional pain.
The way writer/director David Lowery films this is perfect if you stop later and think about it. He films it at a steady, respectful distance from another room – as if the camera were another onlooker in the house – but close enough so that you see her actually eating and you hear the sound of her silverware clicking against the pie plate.
Her devouring of the pie is the first indication of just how empty she is. And that is not really funny, though it could have been played for laughs.
But even that is only part of the genius of this audacious little movie. As we follow our ghost as he remains guarding her at the house he used to live in, we see time pass. She is accompanied home one day by a man who kisses her in obvious hope of something more intimate. He sees in a house not far away, another ghost under a sheet. They somehow communicate in sign language. I won't tell you what they say to each other because it is one more the most genuinely haunting moments in a haunting film.
Time continues to advance while our ghost stands watch at the house. Vast expanses of time – years, centuries, eons perhaps. We are confronted with a conceit we may have found in a great poet – a grief so extreme that it survives beyond the lives of the grieving and the grieved. It threatens to be eternal.
This film has gone so far past any ordinary conception of originality that we expect in movies. It is one of the great films of the year – perhaps one of the great films, period.
And where does it come from? Lowery, the director of Disney's remake of "Pete's Dragon," the man whose first film with Mara and Affleck was "Ain't Them Bodies Saints." As if that weren't surprising enough, he's a man whose hopeful entries, for years, were continually rejected by the Sundance Film Festival.
If you ever loved movies and then lost faith in them in the summer season of obscene noise, money and spectacle, see "A Ghost Story." Something wonderful survives within it.
A Ghost Story
4 stars (out of four)
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star in David Lowery's daring and ambitious fantasy about death, time and grief. Rated R for brief language and a disturbing image. 92 minutes.