The proliferation of streaming services and prestige TV may have the old business models shaking in their boots, but these chilling trends have fringe benefits. Namely, movies, in my—sadly limited—experience, are getting weirder. I have bellyached at length about the lobotomy of “weird” on the global-market scale, where weird is just a synonym for novelty. But there’s a flip-side: indies that don’t compete with a world that drains our attention spans, but create new experiences to contemplate it.
Case in point: David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Maybe it’s because I just saw Stalker (1979), but this film reminded me of Tarkovsky not just in its long, long takes, but in the muddy delta its streams of consciousness form. The glue between the ideas is pure intuition, so the movie reads like a collation of thoughts and feelings: a tone poem rather than a statement. And where Tarkovsky made his movies dense, both visually and verbally, Texas makes this one plain and lucent. The director, who lives in Dallas, has delivered something that’s tonally in between The Tree of Life (set in Houston) and Boyhood (set in Austin). Even its bouts of pretension seem homey.
The wisp of a plot is an inversion of the traditional ghost story: in this telling, the dead person is haunted. After moving into an unprepossessing ranch house with Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck gets into a car accident and makes her a widow. (I’m guessing here; their marital status is undefined.) Sporting the sheet that covered him at the morgue, he watches his beloved grieve and eventually move on—from their home, if not from him. He stays behind, as marooned from his past as he is moored to it.
The decision to costume Casey Affleck like Charlie Brown trick-or-treating was fated to be polarizing. I think it’s a stroke of wit and tone. The ghost is informed by Affleck’s posture and personality, but his humanity becomes generalized: we’re all under there with him, ruminating on eternity and mortality, as helpless to change the world as someone a wink away from sleep. At one point, he discovers another sheet-dweller “living” next door, whom he communicates with via subtitle. She doesn’t remember who she is waiting for; she just waits. One gets the impression that his postmortem consciousness is similarly attenuated: the shadow of a feeling.
Although the narrative slipstreams through past and future enough that its scant 92-minute running time can begin to seem indulgent, the device is beautifully rendered and calibrated to ghost time. After Affleck’s death, conversations become scraps of word salad; his memories of Mara become flash points; and, when a Spanish-speaking family moves into the ranch, their words flutter by untranslated. Their presence provokes a spectral tantrum—the beyond-the-grave equivalent of hitting a wall—and we catch a glimpse of this outburst from the mortals’ point of view. The ghost’s only other haunting is implied to take place after the one extended dialogue scene, a rant about the futility of life given by Will Oldham (better known as Bonnie Prince Billy), a rustic at a house party. It’s the sort of profundity binge you’d excuse yourself from to get another drink, but it works here as a focal point: a trigger for the ghost’s blind rage and despair.
When so much ectoplasm is thrown at a wall, not all of it sticks. But, at its best, A Ghost Story lives up to what its distributor, A24 (Room, Ex Machina, Moonlight, The End of the Tour, Under the Skin), has a genius for: telling stories that are ideally suited to feature length and crafting films as spaces for reflection. Television may have absorbed the novel, but movies remain better equipped for poetry. Cinema hasn’t given up the ghost just yet.