Two days after David Lowery wrapped his big-budget “Pete’s Dragon” remake for Disney, he dove into a tiny personal project back in Texas: “A Ghost Story” cost next to nothing, took place almost entirely in a single house, and called for minimal special effects (the ghost in question wears a bed sheet for most of the movie). The result is a classic example of the “one for them, one for me” strategy that helps indie artists maintain their sanity while also working for studios. The audience for this quiet art-film curio will be decidedly small, but it’s clear why Lowery felt compelled to tell it.
Inspired by an argument the filmmaker had with his wife (he didn’t want to abandon the old house where he could feel the echoes of not only the memories they had shared, but also the past tenants who had inhabited it), “A Ghost Story” anthropomorphizes a given space in time. Sort of. Like an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie translated for Western audiences, Lowery’s film offers an alternative view of the supernatural — and audiences expecting a straightforward horror movie will be disappointed. In fact, “A Ghost Story” could actually be better suited to a museum setting, where this intermittently effective conceptual experiment’s patience-testing approach might be most appreciated.
Although audiences don’t have to wait long for the ghost to arrive, the “story” advertised by the film’s title proves more elusive. In lieu of a narrative, the movie mostly just observes a generic young couple, identified as C and M in the end credits (played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, together again, after Lowery’s Malick-inflected “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), as tragedy transforms their lives together. Statistics say that more than 50% of all car accidents happen within five miles from home, and sure enough, a few minutes into the film, C dies a few feet from his own driveway, killed in a head-on collision.
Lowery doesn’t show the traumatic moment, only the aftermath, which is fitting for a project that is more lyrical than narrative. Framed in a nearly square aspect ratio and shot mostly at a distance, “A Ghost Story” shuns spectacle in favor of subtext, frequently allowing moments to unfold in almost tedious slow motion. In one scene shortly after C’s death, Lowery spends nearly four minutes watching the grieving M devour a pie in silence. As viewers, our natural tendency is to identify with the human actors on screen, but Lowery invites our minds to explore other possibilities — to consider the room, for example, and all the moments this couple may have shared there, or the countless joys and tragedies that have previously taken place within the same four walls that now strain to contain