A Ghost Story.

A Ghost Story reunites Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, and director David Lowery, who all worked together on 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints?, this time in a peculiar film that manages to combine elements of dark humor, pathos, grief, and existential fear in its 90 minutes. It’s about as slow-paced a movie as I can remember seeing, varying scenes that go on twice as long as necessary with compressed time-lapses, and for much of the second half of the film the direction seemed unclear or just lacking. It takes a strong payoff at the end – and this payoff is very strong, thematically and in terms of plot resolution – to justify some of the earlier choices Lowery makes in getting to that final scene. It’s currently available to rent/buy on amazon or iTunes.

Affleck, who won Best Actor this spring for Manchester by the Sea just after allegations of sexual and personal harassment surfaced against him, plays M, who has just moved into a house with C, played by Mara. They seem to have an idyllic little romance, but shortly into the film, M is killed in a car accident just outside of their house. After C identifies his body at the morgue and leaves the room in her grief, M rises from the gurney … with the sheet on, and two dark ovals for his eyes, and then spends the rest of the film wandering around as a ghost in that sheet. It sounds ridiculous, and it largely plays out that way: It’s hard to take anything too seriously when the dude is standing there in the cheapest Halloween costume ever.

M goes back to the house and sees C mourning, including a scene that was longer than Krusty the Clown’s SNL sketch where C eats a pie left by a friend, and then sees her go on a date and starts moving things around in the house in his anger. She moves out, another family moves in, and suddenly M is haunting the house, leading to a fairly harrowing scene out of a gothic horror film, made worse because the son of the family can actually see him (the only evidence I saw that any living character saw the ghost). M even interacts with another besheeted ghost next door, although she at least gets a pattern on her sheet, in a couple of brief conversations that are so morose that they played out as the blackest of comedy to me. Eventually, the house is destroyed while M is standing in it, cleared out to make room for a skyscraper … and things just get weirder from there, as M loops backwards in time and eventually approaches the present where he can see himself as a ghost watching himself as a living person with C in their house.

A story like this only works if enough of the details that seem trivial in passing turn out to matter in the resolution, and by and large Lowery does so. The ghost next door turns out to matter. C’s habit of leaving notes in crevices of places she’s lived turns out to matter. The scene early in the film where a strange noise in the middle of the night gets the two out of bed matters. Some things don’t – I mean, really, I love pie, but the pie scene is just too damn long – but Lowery brings enough of these quirks home in the conclusion to justify the length and pace of the journey.

Although it’s a supernatural film in the sense that M is a ghost, A Ghost Story doesn’t dwell at all on the spiritual aspects of what’s happening, even though much of its internal theology draws from the practices and beliefs of modern spiritualism or religions that draw from it like Baha’i. What appears to be a story about a tragic romance ends up a story about moving on after loss, about how you can get stuck in your grief and unable to move forward, forced to repeat or relive the worst experiences of your life when you still have life ahead of you.

Affleck doesn’t appear in the film very much except under the sheet – I’ve read that it was usually him under there – and it could have been almost anyone in that role. Mara has more weight to carry, and I don’t think she was fully up to the task. Mara has a vacancy to her looks, her speech, even her appearance that undermines the character’s presence on the screen. I understand C’s grief, but I don’t feel it from Mara. It doesn’t help that she looks so much younger than Affleck, or that her voice is so insubstantial; she reminded me of Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick or Emily Browning on American Gods (easily my least favorite actor on that show), where the casting director seems to have confused “waifish” with “vulnerable.” I don’t care about how a character looks if s/he brings the right emotion to the role, but Mara just isn’t present enough in C’s character to sell me on the depth of her grief or make her recovery from it feel compelling.

A Ghost Story is a tough sell on so many levels, and I’m still not sure how much of what I found comic in the role was intentional. Had Lowery flubbed the ending, I’d have little positive to say about it, because he constructed the script on the foundation of that concluding scene. But it works extremely well when he gets there – and it’s fast, so if you do watch this, don’t blink – and infuses almost everything that came before with greater meaning, so that A Ghost Story really does tell us something about loss and continuing to live beyond it.


  1. Hey, Keith. I may be misremembering, but the Casey Affleck issue came up quite a bit in your chats, and I thought you’d stated that you’d avoid watching any of his movies going forward. Or was it more that you personally wouldn’t hire him if you were producing a movie. Has your stance changed somewhat or am I just not recalling correctly? I remember agreeing in general with your take, so was kind of surprised to see this review.

    • You are misremembering. I compared hiring him to signing Aroldis Chapman. I am not avoiding watching games where Chapman pitches either.

  2. If only this website had a search feature where you could enter Casey Affleck’s name and see every time his name was mentioned in a post or chat. I’d probably put said feature in the top right corner with a big red Search button and an instructional line that says “Search this website”.