clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Ghost Story was one of Sundance’s most buzzed-about films. It earns the hype.

Starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, the movie takes an intimate story of love and loss and turns it into something cosmic.

A scene from A Ghost Story
A scene from A Ghost Story
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s an odd sensation: As we age, our memories pile up in physical places. Just today, I walked by a building I lived in more than 10 years ago and they all came flooding back: how I was living there when my father died, and when I got married; how we used to hear our neighbor downstairs playing jazz saxophone on hot summer evenings; how I cooked up big pots of chili and fed them to friends who sat on the floor of the tiny place, all 400 square feet of it.

The longer you stay put in one area, those memories stack up, sometimes overlapping with one another. Everywhere I go in Brooklyn, where I’ve lived for 11 years, now has some memory attached to it, and sometimes a bunch.

David Lowery’s exquisite gem A Ghost Story takes this phenomenon and adds to it. For Lowery, the memories heaped all over a place take on more than just an abstract theoretical quality — they are ghosts. Tangible ghosts, which A Ghost Story renders as literally as possible: A person under a bedsheet, with eyeholes punched out.

Lowery’s ghosts are the kind we make in elementary school for a Halloween play, which seems fitting. The memories evoked by their childlike quality are a further reminder that our pasts hang around and haunt us, long past when we think they’ve slipped into history — and that’s the mystery of life that A Ghost Story spins into a yarn that’s more folk tale than horror.

For the first 45 minutes, A Ghost Story is an intimate story of love, loss, and grief

A Ghost Story starts out as a love story, and a sad one. After all, you can’t have ghosts without dead people.

The dead person, played by Casey Affleck, is C (who goes unnamed in the film, but has the one-initial name in the credits), a music producer married to M (Rooney Mara) and living in a small one-level house in Texas. They’re thinking of moving, though — or at least M is. C feels attached to the house in a way he can’t really articulate.

One night, lying in bed, they both bolt awake after hearing a crash on the keys of the piano in the living room — a piano that was in the house before they got there; the real estate agent tells them it had been there “forever.” They go out to investigate, but nobody’s in the living room, and eventually they go back to bed, nuzzling each other to sleep. Shortly thereafter, C dies in a car accident.

Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story
Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story.

Or does he? Lying in the hospital morgue after M identifies his body and then leaves, C suddenly bolts awake underneath the sheet and sits up, then rises and leaves the hospital, still under the sheet (with two convenient eye holes cut in it now). He re-enters the house and discovers that while he can still watch M, she can’t see him anymore.

A wrenching series of scenes follow, depicting the full range of grief that M experiences, with Mara’s big eyes and placid exterior cracking in ways that feel so real they’re almost unbearable. At one point she pulls the bedsheets off the bed she used to share with C to wash them, then stops, sits on the foot of the bed, and just holds the sheets; it’s the first time she’s washed them since he died. And in the five-minute scene that’s sure to be the movie’s most cited sequence, she slumps onto the kitchen floor and eats a whole pie with increasing urgency. We just watch.

A Ghost Story changes into something unexpected midway through

But A Ghost Story isn’t all sorrow and grief. There’s a kind of deadpan humor throughout — the sheet ghost is comical, and there’s no getting around it — that complicates the film and rewards a rewatch.

Sorrow, grief, humor, irritation, love: Those are all parts of a life, and even after loss, life goes on. The ghost-that-was-C watches as M picks up the pieces of her life hesitatingly and then, midway through, does something surprising: She moves out of the house.

After that, the movie turns into something quite different, and it’s too perfect to spoil. For C-the-ghost, time ceases to run in its normal course. Years slip away in an instant, and the accumulation of memories becomes something almost cosmically wise, a meditation on the meaning of life itself. In one scene, we watch a slightly inebriated guy wax semi-eloquent on this topic, but it seems silly and pretentious next to the film itself. You can’t explain the meaning of life. You can only experience it, and that’s what the movie is after.

A scene from A Ghost Story
A scene from A Ghost Story

Lowery’s tendency as a director is to privilege images over dialogue. Sometimes he hangs on an image for minutes more than we’re conditioned to expect by most American films, forcing us to contemplate what we’re seeing. Not that it’s a burdensome task: Each shot in any of his films feels like it could be framed and hung on the wall. (Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo shot the film in a nearly square aspect ratio, with rounded corners, which only adds to the sense that we’re looking at a photo pasted into an album.)

A Ghost Story doesn’t have much talking at all (in some places, to comical effect). You have to watch and feel and experience what’s onscreen in order to follow the story, which begins to play with our expectations about time in ways that are ultimately deeply satisfying, almost cathartic. That means that when people do talk, we pay attention: This must be important. And as the movie shifts from realism to surrealism to something all its own, we’re carried along by what we see.

A Ghost Story mixes individual lives into a bigger cosmic story

A Ghost Story casts the afterlife as something we shape during life, shaded by our regrets and loves. We are not done with life until we reconcile those things about which we feel shame or remorse. In other words, the hereafter is a direct product of the here and now.

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in A Ghost Story
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in A Ghost Story.

But for A Ghost Story, both life and afterlife is also bound up somehow with the story of the cosmos. It manages to share DNA with Ghost, Personal Shopper, and, implausibly, 2001: A Space Odyssey, all at the same time. If people’s individual memories pile up in the spaces they inhabit, then the collective memory of the whole human race is imprinted all over the universe, especially this earth we live on, with varying degrees of success. So in the Ghost Story universe, how we live today doesn’t just impact what our lives will be in the hereafter, but also what it will be like to be human long after 2017 is a distant memory.

Early in the film, M tells C that when she was a child, moving around a lot with her family, she used to write notes and stick them in the walls of her house, on which she’d written “little rhymes and poems, things I wanted to remember about living in that house.” It was, in a sense, her little attempt to put a pin in history, marking in a tangible way that she had been in that house, a part of its memory pileup. A Ghost Story feels like Lowery’s attempt to do the same — to mark what it is to exist now, and give us a film to rewatch and remember, too.

A Ghost Story opens in theaters on July 7.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.