David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is a fragmented tale of the fingerprints we leave behind on the world, the individual moments that explain who we are, and the places that have made us who we are. Lowery’s take on grief and memory is shot like a home movie, and for better or worse, A Ghost Story is like dusting off an old family tape. It is scattershot medley of moments, some of which are beautiful and transcendent to behold, while others ill-advised and awkward.
In some scenes, Lowery evokes the dreamlike wonder of Terrence Malick, the constantly-questioning mysteries of Stanley Kubrick, or the slow contemplation of Andrei Tarkovsky. As a counterpoint, Lowery also presents moments of complete pretense and frustration. There is a point where a character known solely as M (Rooney Mara) eats an entire pie in real-time, only to throw it up as a ghost watches in the background. Unlike Lowery’s previous two films Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story is likely to stick with its audience, either because they’ve experienced a profound, moving experience, or because they’re questioning what the hell they have just witnessed.
A Ghost Story begins with M and her husband C (Casey Affleck), who live in a small Texas house. M wants to move, but C has an attachment to the home that he can’t explain. Occasionally the couple will hear inexplicable noises in their house, such as the sound of someone slamming on a piano. Soon after, C dies in a car accident right outside their house. After M identifies the body at the morgue, C rises up covered in the sheet – now with two eyeholes – and returns to his former home.
A Ghost Story starts off as a story about M’s grief. This segment is highly affecting at times, but Lowery – who also wrote the film – isn’t exactly saying anything new about mourning. Lowery’s decision to place C in a sheet for the entire film is also more distracting from the theme he’s setting in these scenes. Despite the complete anguish and specter of loss that looms over M, the audience still sees a guy dressed like Charlie Brown on Halloween. Lowery never makes it clear if this is supposed to be a respite from the misery occurring, or if it’s just a poor mashing of choices.
Lowery goes full-on ambitious once M leaves the home, with the ghost of C waiting behind. In this second half, Lowery turns the themes away from individual suffering and more into mankind’s futile attempts to remain meaningful when the people and places we love have gone away. Lowery’s Malick-ian imagery speaks for itself for most of the film, but unfortunately he also feels the need to include a scene where Will Oldham shows up, explains the film, and disappears as quickly as he came.
This second half is aspiring to Tree of Life or Interstellar levels of examination, presenting questions of the cyclical nature of art, life, and mankind. While Lowery makes some inquiries about them, he never quite has any interest in making a statement on them. For example, Oldham’s character mentions that no matter how much we try to leave our mark on this world, it’s inevitable that everything we create or do will be washed away with time. Yet only minutes later, we hear a song that C had recorded earlier, hummed by someone from a completely different time period, with absolutely no way for this song to pass from one person to the other. This is A Ghost Story’s greatest problem: setting up one idea, only to have it forfeited by a contradictory one.
But for all its conflicting messages and ostentatious questions, A Ghost Story is worthwhile for those rare moments when the film is utterly spectacular. Whether its seemingly insurmountable depression or the grandiosity of life, Lowery can create feelings within A Ghost Story that are far more powerful than the film’s low points. Lowery has a gift for emotional resonance and gorgeous imagery. It’s just a shame he gets in his own way.