If 2017 brings us another movie as good as writer-director David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, it will be a marvelous year indeed. A Ghost Story will not win the Oscar for best picture; it will not be the year’s top moneymaker. But years from now, when whatever won or cleaned up at the box office way back in ’17 is a trivia question few can answer, people will still be watching, studying, marveling at and thinking about Lowery’s quiet, profoundly haunting masterpiece.
It’s hard to imagine who Lowery was making A Ghost Story for, or how he pitched it to the money people who gave it the greenlight. I can only surmise that he made the movie for himself (the greatest moviemakers, like the greatest novelists, don’t make movies they want to sell, they make movies they want to see), and that somehow he communicated this passion, this curiosity to see where the story would go, to everybody else—as he, in fact, communicates it to us.
I will share only what I knew about this movie before I saw it—not because there’s some astonishing turn of the plot that can’t be revealed, but just because the movie unfolds in layers that you are better left to discover for yourself.
A young man (Casey Affleck) is killed in an auto accident outside the rural house where he lives. His spirit, still wearing the sheet that covered his body in the morgue, returns to the house and lingers around the woman—wife? girlfriend?—with whom he lived (Rooney Mara). He, or it, continues to haunt the house even after she has moved away—as others come and go, the house is bulldozed and replaced, into an unknown future and back into an unremembered past.
I know, I know. A guy in a sheet with two eyeholes cut in it? What is this, Casper the Friendly Ghost: The Movie? And yet, and yet—Lowery’s mere simplicity of storytelling universalizes his story. We don’t know the names of any of the characters who pass before us, but their names don’t matter. In a sense, they are us. Words are sparse, revealing little while suggesting much. The most sustained passage of dialogue comes midway, as the ghost wanders unseen at a party in his old house. One of the party people, identified in the credits as “Prognosticator” (Will Oldham), rambles on, slightly drunk, about time and the urge to endure. It’s Lowery’s theme, yet it’s presented casually, as if overheard by accident. A Ghost Story is a movie so deeply and keenly observed that the sight of, say, Rooney Mara sitting on her kitchen floor eating a pie can be freighted with inchoate meaning and glimpses of eternity.
I’ve changed my mind. I’ll share one moment I didn’t know about going in. Our ghost spots another sheeted spirit in a neighboring house. They communicate silently, in subtitles. “Hello,” says the other ghost.
“I’m waiting for someone.”
Another pause. “I forget.”
You will not forget seeing A Ghost Story. Ever.