Haunting in an entirely unexpected way, this film about a ghost grieving the passing of his life is a devastating piece of independent cinema.
It begins with scenes of unremarkable and largely wordless domesticity, director David Lowery (the live-action Pete’s Dragon remake) voyeuristically hovering over the unnamed couple (Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck) as they bicker and nuzzle.
Then, one morning, Affleck’s character is killed in a car crash. After a long, lugubrious shot of his covered body lying under strip lights on a hospital gurney, he stands up, still under the white sheet, and shuffles off. The sheet, which now has eye-holes cut out like a home-made Halloween costume, stays on for the rest of the film.
The conceit recalls Michael Fassbender’s role in Frank, in which he wore a big papier mache head, and like that film the expressionless costume exudes sadness and longing. Invisible to those around him, the ghost passes through vast, melancholy landscapes before the settling back into the couple’s small rural home. From there he observes the space his life used to occupy, unable to comprehend no longer being.
There’s virtually no dialogue. In the days and weeks after the accident, Mara’s character exists in stunned silence. When a neighbour delivers a condolence pie, she eats the entire thing while sitting on the kitchen floor, in a five-minute single shot that runs the gamut from uncomfortable to absurd to traumatic. All the while, the ghost stands by, unmoving, unseen, watching. It might be the saddest eating of a pie ever committed to film.
Eventually the girl moves on, and moves out, and the ghost is left to contend with new flatmates. Occasionally his pent-up frustrations boil over into some low-level poltergeisting, terrifying the new residents, but the tone never strays close to traditional horror.
A Ghost Story is about time: squandering it, luxuriating in it, realising it will carry on without us. It’s about grief, and the unfathomability of loss. It says more in an almost silent 87 minutes than some filmmakers say in a lifetime. It makes you want to call your family and tell them you love them. It’s brilliant.
First published in City A.M.