‘A Ghost Story,’ phantom pain

Image: A24

A Ghost Story is so spare that its main characters don’t even have names. (The credits list Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as C and M, respectively.) Outwardly a love story, it’s phenomenally sincere stuff. And while the image of Affleck haunting his old stomping ground through a white sheet and two eyeholes is easily ridiculed, this thing roars with purpose; writer-director-editor David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) has conjured a movie that moves and glides like a specter, but one imbued with all the emotional weight that causes spirits to remain earthbound, tending to unfinished business.

With its square, Academy ratio and rounded corners, the claustral frame evokes fading photographs and the boxy rooms in which our lives run their course. This is a movie about space and how we relate to the quotidian crannies we inhabit every day—how we inform them and they us. It’s about the way structures impose themselves on us and the will we impose on them: the amorphousness of arrangement. Structures aren’t supposed to change—they’re built to last—and we’re supposed to be the ones who grow. A Ghost Story insists that it’s the other way around; spaces are transient because we inform what they mean whether through momentary gestures or behavior. Underneath, though, those gestures and emotions are only transitory manifestations. After they fade, we’re left fundamentally unchanged, gaining only the memory of those fleeting sparks of happiness, depression, and everything in between.

But that headiness only explains half of the movie’s hypnotic trick. Like that incongruously unremarkable ghost costume haunting nearly every frame, A Ghost Story emerges with a latent sense of humor. Just as one begins to wrinkle at some of the movie’s more precious gambits, it slips an easy wink that a macabre whimsy lies beneath its own unaffected garb.

The movie’s ultimate ambition leads it to places both majestic and beyond its grasp. As it surges past its initial formal and narrative confines at an increasingly accelerated clip, the movie begins to resemble Terrence Malick’s celestial leaps. That’s not an easy jump, and the movie excuses it with an anarchic, frustratingly on-the-nose monologue delivered by Will Oldham. But there’s too much audacity on display to trust that Lowery really believes in Oldham’s nihilistic summation. That’s not to say Lowery is a spiritualist, either; this is a movie about the afterlife that’s refreshingly free of religiosity. Even when pondering the cosmos, Lowery’s most direct concern is the glory of impermanence.

A Ghost Story is, in contrast to its main character, always on the move and evolving. With its spectral, circling Steadicam and an oblique structure that bends backward and forward, the movie demonstrates the outrageously clever, restive mind of its maker. It’s a movie marked by deceptive restraint—even its showier sequences are closer to furtive sleights of hand—that never lets you see it reaching for profundity.

Maybe that’s why the movie never quite earns the emotional resonance for which, beneath its understated touch, it so desperately craves. C is a cipher; by design, we never know what’s going on beneath that sheet. His journey, then, never matches the volcanic stir of Daniel Hart’s score. But that doesn’t really matter. When we’ve moved on, nothing left but dust, A Ghost Story’s fleeting 92 minutes will remain in the memory, haunting its corners until the end of time.

A Ghost Story. Written and directed by David Lowery. Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Opens in Kansas City July 28, 2017.

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