Take heed: A Ghost Story is not a horror film, a jump-out spooker, or anything to do with the popular paranormal genre. David Lowery’s minimally plotted, low-budget film is a slow-moving, elliptical meditation on grief, loneliness, time, memory and the fleeting nature of all our lives. It stars a white cotton sheet, and it might make you cry.
Lowery, who wrote and directed the film, reunites with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, who also starred in his 2013 feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Here, they portray an unnamed couple living in a small house. We hang out with them for a bit; she recounts a childhood quirk, where she would leave tiny notes hidden in various houses where she lived. (“So that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting,” she explains.) After the man is killed in a car wreck, he returns to the house as a ghost, watching over the woman and waiting. It’s best if the rest of the film unfolds in its own way, free from expectations.
The ghost is a person wearing a sheet. There is a legitimate argument that this sheeted ghost is laughable and ridiculous, a last-minute Halloween costume, or a vestigial character from a Little Rascals two-reeler. But I found the ghost deeply affecting. It’s not clear whether it’s Academy Award-winning Affleck under the sheet, but whoever is beneath it conveys a fair amount of emotion through simple shifts in body language. Discernible under the sheet is the top of the head and the bulge of the nose; completing the recognizable “face” are two large black “eyes,” raggedly cut from the fabric. It also helps that we empathize with the ghost, even if we don’t fully understand its purpose. But it’s also seeking, grieving, enduring something — and these are universal states that are easy to project, even onto a draped sheet.
There is also something nostalgic about the sheeted ghost, reinforcing the film’s melancholy about the past, and how it slips away. (Lowery shoots the film using a square aspect ratio, with rounded corners, recalling a once-familiar snapshot format.) And yet, there is something weirdly gorgeous about the sheeted ghost working its way across the early-morning fields, returning to the little house.
The film is 90 minutes, and that’s fair for an offbeat, lyrical work that doesn’t so much offer a plot as a flow. Things happen, and some other things happen as a result, but the vibe is more contemplative than expository. There is little dialogue, and Lowery favors long takes, even of empty rooms, often holding the camera well past the point where it makes sense narratively. It creates a peculiar form of tension, and adds to the sensation that despite looking, perhaps we aren’t really seeing everything.