A Ghost Story is a hard film to review but a deceptively easy one to summarise.

A young couple, C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) live and love in a small rented house in smallish town Texas. A musician content to stay at home composing, C lacks ambition but M is restless, dissatisfied. She’s worried they’ve become stagnant, is keen for their relationship to develop, evolve, wants to move on, move house. C though loves their life, loves their home, is content to noodle away at his music, the world (and his wife) blocked out by headphones.

Then C dies. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Killed (offscreen) in a car crash within sight of the house. At the hospital while identifying C’s white sheet-draped body, M breaks down, runs from the morgue. We stay with the body, watch as C sits up, follow him as he follows M home, still draped in the sheet, now sporting two mournful black eyeholes like a child’s rudimentary representation of a ghost.

We watch as C’s ghost lingers in his former home, passively watching his wife grieve, witness her slow recovery, watch her eventual move on, both emotionally and literally, physically leaving behind the house, the life they shared together. But, tied emotionally and spiritually to their home, C stays, watches as new tenants arrive and make their own lives. Time passes, circles back on itself, C remains, silent, ever watching, adrift in time and memory…

You’re going to see the word “haunting” a lot in reviews of A Ghost Story. Most of them, you’ll also be able to picture the reviewer’s smug, too-cool-for-school smirk – it’s haunting coz it’s a ghost story! – while others will be more earnest, more heartfelt. Because A Ghost Story is, quite simply, a haunting cinematic experience. After his triumphant reimagining of Disney’s Pete Dragon, David Lowery returns to the indie roots (and stars) of his breakthrough feature, the Malick-infused outlaw crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, with A Ghost Story, a raw, heart-breaking study of loss and grief that again channels Malick and Lowery’s friend and contemporary Shane Carruth to quietly deliver possibly the most formally bold, most inventive, truly affecting film of the year, a bittersweet, gothic hymn to love and memory.

A Ghost Story shouldn’t work. It’s about a ghost in a white sheet spying on his wife after all. It practically dares you to mock it. Audiences are too hip, too knowing, too cynical, to buy into such a simple, almost childlike concept. They’ll laugh. Surely, it’s supposed to be funny? Belief can only be suspended so far. And yet, shooting in long, static takes using the boxy 4:3 ratio, the rounded, softened edges of the frame and the washed out colour palette, like old photos faded by time, intensifying the film’s woozy, dreamlike atmosphere, Lowery has created a melancholy and unashamedly sentimental film that not only dares to ask the big questions about the ephemeral nature of human existence, about love, about loss, about the ripples we leave behind us but it’s also a film brave enough to leave them maddeningly, ambiguously hanging; there are answers here, just maybe not the ones you’d expect.

Hidden under a Scooby Doo sheet for most of the film, Affleck lends his lost soul a soulful quality in a near wordless performance that rivals his Oscar-winning turn in Manchester By The Sea, his chunky physicality lending solidity to the film’s spectral protagonist, imbuing a simple sheet with a lonely ache while there’s strong support from singer and actor Will Oldham, Bonnie Prince Billy himself, who’s drunken know-it-all, pontificating on the nature of time and existence, at a party may boast the lion’s share of the film’s dialogue while pop singer Kesha (having dropped the $ from her name) contributes a playful cameo. Mara meanwhile is astonishing, a raw study in grief, one long, practically silent, unbroken scene in particular where she sits alone on the kitchen floor demolishing an entire pie, seeking to fill the void within her, before vomiting it back up, is heart-breaking and may be one of the most intimate, devastating and honest portrayals of grief ever to grace the screen.

Still, profound and beautiful, A Ghost Story is an achingly sad, affecting, ultimately uplifting, emotional odyssey that could coax tears from a glass eye and may be the year’s purest, most rewarding cinematic experience. And yes, it will haunt you.

Movie Review: A Ghost Story
5.0Overall Score
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