Writer-director David Lowery, making a return to indie cinema following the underrated Pete’s Dragon, foregrounds the melancholy possibilities of life after death in this sensitive and profound tale.
His Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play a couple credited only as M and C, whose life together comes to an abrupt end when he is killed in a car accident. Shortly after M goes to the hospital to identify the body, C’s spirit rises up, entirely shrouded by the bed sheet his body has been covered in, and returns to their home.
Working with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (shooting in a 4:3 ratio to great effect) and composer Daniel Hart, Lowery creates a warm atmosphere for R and C’s life in their beautiful rural home, which R wants to leave and C can’t give up. One has a future beyond this place, and the other does not.
Once C returns, the film’s timeline becomes slippery. We witness the immediate aftermath of his death in the much-discussed, lengthy scene of M tearfully eating an entire pie while sitting on the floor (beautifully played by Mara), but there’s no set-up for a Ghost-esque reconnection. C may refuse to move on but time isn’t going to play along. The second third of the film inches close to horror as he begins to lash out, but Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick are a more obvious influence in the bold final third.
There are moments of striking visual beauty and the bed sheet-clad figure never once loses our attention, even when he comes close to losing our sympathy. Most importantly, Lowery is interested in exploring grander questions about if and how we leave anything of ourselves behind, if we will have any impact on the far-flung future. A scene in which these thoughts are expounded upon by Will Oldham’s Prognosticator is a little on the nose, but the most affecting moments in A Ghost Story are found in the scenes shared between C and his spectral neighbour, stuck waiting for the return of someone they can’t even remember.
It’s a little inaccessible, perhaps, with long sequences of reflective silence, but A Ghost Story has a real emotional power that is sincerely haunting.