A Ghost Story movie review: 'David Lowery's eerie tale will divide opinion but it's a unique masterpiece of sorts'
A Ghost Story (12A, 92mins) ★★★★★
What happens when we die? Choirs of angels, perhaps, reincarnation as the family mutt, or maybe just nothing at all. That latter possibility may seem the scariest, but there could be worse fates than oblivion if David Lowery's brilliant and slightly unhinged drama A Ghost Story is to be believed. Because his spook is a kind of supernatural Hamlet, a lonely shade doomed to watch helplessly from the sidelines as his gorgeous wife moves on with her life, and out of their home.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are the couple in question, and in the film's early scenes, we watch them go about their humdrum and only mildly interesting bohemian lives. He's a composer and musician, she has an actual job, and they live in cosy chaos in a run-down wooden clap-board house. He loves it, she wants to move, and they have heated discussions on this subject: otherwise, though, love appears to reign and they canoodle tenderly in the dead of night.
Then, Lowery's camera abruptly shifts to the scene of a car crash, in which we learn that the man has died. His wife files in to identify him on a mortuary slab, and a white sheet is pulled respectfully over his head. After she leaves, however, the sheet rises, and follows.
In my favourite sequence, it trudges slowly across roads and fields towards the only place its spirit can now inhabit. But time in this new dimension works very differently, as the silent ghost will shortly learn.
He watches his wife sit and stare, grieve silently with her head in her hands, then slowly start to get on with her life. As he watches, days, weeks and months flit by in the blinking of a ghostly eye: her mood lifts, she even laughs, and one night, the poor spook gets a terrible fright when she brings back a new man.
He can act out telekinetically, as it were, throwing books and slamming doors, but is otherwise powerless to intervene in the world of flesh and blood. And worse is to come when she moves out altogether, after shoving a tiny note into a gap in the wall.
He's doing his best to prize it out when he looks around to find the house has a new tenant. It's a single mother and her two children, who will experience the full brunt of his impotent fury.
He throws glasses, smashes plates and makes such a racket that they too leave. The house is empty, and will soon be torn down, but the ghost is doomed to stay there until his lonely quest is fulfilled. The idea of a man under a sheet might sound childish, laughable, but stripping the notion of ghosts back to bare bones allows Lowery to examine not so much death, but grief, recovery and the callous resilience of the human spirit. That sheet is no ordinary fitted two-ply: its artful folds suggest the gloom of the soul beneath and its slow realisation that it is no longer a protagonist.
It can move back as well as forth in time, and dwells gloomily on the finer points of the relationship it took for granted in life before plunging backwards to the frontier era and the Indian wars that cleared the land on which its house would eventually be built. The house too will go and be replaced by a stultifying office skyscraper whose neon-lit corridors the ghost will pointlessly haunt.
But it is not entirely alone: other ghosts appear now and then, and wordlessly communicate their confusion and gloom. One haunts a neighbouring house, and tells our spook it's waiting for someone but can no longer remember whom. Then it despairs entirely, and the sheet collapses. Time is the issue here, as Lowery makes clear in the film's most talked about scene. While the man's spirit hovers in the corner, the woman returns home, still grieving, and sits on the ground eating a cherry pie a neighbour has brought. As he watches, she eats all of it in a scene that lasts a good five minutes but felt like an eternity.
This will infuriate some viewers, but the director is making a point, about time, how quickly it passes, and how casually and mindlessly we squander it.
Films coming soon...
The Dark Tower (Matthew McConaughey, Idris Elba); Everything, Everything (Amanda Stenberg, Nick Robinson); The Hitman's Bodyguard (Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L Jackson, Gary Oldman); Final Portrait (Geoffrey Rush, Arnie Hammer).