It’s a bold move. Take one of the finest actors of his generation, noted for the subtlety of his recent Oscar-winning performance in Manchester By the Sea, and cover him with a sheet for most of a film. Casting Casey Affleck as the kind of bed linen-sporting ghost best known for menacing Scooby-Doo and pals is a decision akin to Lenny Abrahamson putting a massive papier-mache head on Michael Fassbender in Frank. But just as Fassbender managed to convey both humour and pathos despite the impediment of a giant moon of a false bonce, so Affleck imbues what could be an absurd presence, loitering on the edge of the frame like a piece of misplaced laundry, with an agonising sense of loss and mounting frustration. In his economic movements we recognise a soul adrift and increasingly unmoored from everything except his grief.
The fourth feature film from the American film-maker David Lowery, A Ghost Story reunites Affleck and Rooney Mara, the two stars of Lowery’s acclaimed second feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The director also brings from this previous film the hint of a Malickian influence in the slow-burning pacing and spiritual themes.
Tonally, it could hardly be further from his third picture, the delightful but rather more conventional family film Pete’s Dragon. Rather than Hollywood, the inspiration here comes from Europe – Lowery cites Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles by Chantal Akerman as a reference point; I sensed a kinship with the matter-of-fact metaphysics of Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper – and Asia. It’s this that really stands out. Both in the long, mesmerisingly languid takes and the sense of a coexisting spirit world, the influence of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is evident. The almost ridiculous quality of Affleck’s sheet-covered spook finds a parallel in the slightly silly, red-eyed monkey spirits of Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The two films also have thematic parallels. Both explore the blurred edges between our corporeal existence and a parallel dimension inhabited by shadows and unquiet souls.
What is intriguing about this particular ghost story is not the fact that Lowery decides to tell it from the point of view of the ghost rather than the haunted humans. It’s the distance that Lowery places between Affleck’s character as a human – he plays C, the musician husband of Mara’s M – and the mournful, wafting presence he becomes after death. Once everything that made him human – his physical being, his powers of communication – is whittled away, what remains is love and an aching longing; he is a bruise without a body. Bereavement isn’t limited to the person left alive, but only the person left alive retains the tools to process grief and move on. The ghosts in this gorgeously sad story are left waiting for an answer to a question that evaporated into the ether long ago.
Pensive, precise and with an elegant, looping structure, this is a first-rate piece of direction from Lowery, who also wrote the screenplay. He employs minimal use of flashbacks, but there is one key moment – M listening to a new composition by her husband – that brings a whole new dimension to the raw emotion of the story.
With long spells without dialogue, and long takes without editing, Lowery leans on Daniel Hart’s lush, string-heavy score. There’s an unassuming beauty to the music: it’s ascendant but hesitant, hinting at the assumed trajectory of souls after death.
The film is also notable for Rooney Mara’s finest work since Carol. Her grief is luminous but low key – the camera seeks her out in close-up, framed in a boxy 1:33 aspect ratio, capturing the barely perceptible flickers of pain. There’s a harrowing four-minute shot in which she eats an entire chocolate pie, seeking something – anything – to fill the emptiness of grief. But the moment that really choked me comes just before. She throws something in the kitchen bin and then freezes, gazing, numb, at the discarded remnants of her former life, the life that until the day before she had shared with her man. It’s a subtly devastating jolt of realisation that everything has changed, for ever.