Showings: September 8-14
Times: Nightly at 7:30pm, Saturday Matinee at 1:30pm and Sunday Matinee at 2:30pm. No one will be admitted after the film has started.
Cost: Regular $7; Matinees $6; MVFS Members $5; Seniors over 60, Military and Students with ID $6; Wednesdays $5
Length: 92 min
Film Director: David Lowery
For perfectly good reasons, the literature of grief dwells on the experiences of the living, the survivors who grapple with the pain of loss and the puzzle of absence. But maybe the dead have feelings, too. That, when you think about it, is the premise of a great many ghost stories, and also of “A Ghost Story,” David Lowery’s ingenious and affecting new film.
The specter whose story this is — let’s call him Ghostie, since even when he’s alive we never learn his name — indulges in some of the usual haunting behaviors. He knocks books off shelves, makes light bulbs flicker, opens closet doors in the middle of the night and subjects a terrified family to a full-scale, crockery-smashing supernatural tantrum.
The effect of all of this on the viewer is strange and intense but not exactly scary in the expected horror-movie manner. In an age of expanded, digitally enabled ectoplasmic possibility, Mr. Lowery takes a tried-and-true, low-tech, Halloween-costume approach. Ghostie is a bedsheet with eyeholes. Possibly with some digital enhancement, but basically a 6-year-old’s idea of a ghost. And why not? We intuit his moods through the drape and droop of the fabric (the thread count looks pretty decent), and infer a brooding, smoldering temperament behind the cloth. This may be because the person inside — or at least the person Ghostie used to be — is Casey Affleck.
Before his transformation into the title character, Mr. Affleck and Rooney Mara — her character is also unnamed — live together in a ranch house in the middle of somewhere. They argue a little about moving, but otherwise they pursue a low-key, harmonious, semi-bohemian existence. He writes songs and experiments with sound. She goes off to work in the morning. They whisper and look gorgeous and occasionally exchange tender, tentative smiles. In some ways these two (and the other human beings who show up from time to time) are the real ghosts in the story — abstract, almost theoretical creatures floating in and out of Ghostie’s troubled consciousness.
The couple’s brief time together sets a hushed, poignant tone and establishes the dramatic and emotional limits within which “A Ghost Story” will operate. Not that there aren’t jolts and surprises. Just when you think you’ve cracked the film’s circumscribed logic, it opens up and goes wild in ways at once too wondrous and too preposterous to spoil. As a metaphysician, Mr. Lowery is not hung up on rules, but as a storyteller and an orchestrator of emotional effects he appreciates the need for coherence.
Ghostie is not the only one of his kind in the movie. The dead (at least some of them) can communicate directly with one another and passive aggressively with the living. They can travel in time but not in space, which explains the existence of haunted houses. They witness our suffering and fear but have only the most limited ability to intervene, even though they seem to inhabit, albeit invisibly, the same physical world we do. After a while, Ghostie’s sheet starts looking rumpled and dirty. It’s the only one he has, and he’s been wearing it for a very long time.
And time — the ways it can accelerate through years, freeze in moments and defy measurement altogether — is Mr. Lowery’s chief preoccupation here, his major theme and his raw material. At one point, early in her bereavement, Ms. Mara comes home to find a pie left for her by a well-meaning acquaintance. As Ghostie looks on, she takes a few forkfuls and then slumps down against a cabinet and keeps eating, without haste but also without pausing for breath. The camera stays on her for several minutes, which feels like an eternity. Eternity, though, is poor Ghostie’s problem.
For him the calendar and the clock have no meaning, and as the film proceeds, growing darker and stranger, we feel his impatience and disorientation. What we don’t feel is the boredom that must surely be part of the story of his long afterlife. “A Ghost Story” is suspenseful, dourly funny and at times piercingly emotional. Daniel Hart’s musical score is full of pathos and longing, compensating — maybe almost overcompensating — for the literal deadpan of the protagonist.
The movie may be built around a conceptual gimmick, but it feels less self-conscious than Mr. Lowery’s other recent films, the gloomy Southern crime story “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (also starring Mr. Affleck and Ms. Mara) and the sweet, borderline-twee remake of the ’70s children’s weepie “Pete’s Dragon.” “A Ghost Story” works so well because it shouldn’t work at all. Starting with a quote from Virginia Woolf, it wears its literary pedigree on its sleeve, yet it manages to feel fresh and inventive rather than stale or studied. It’s like an old tale by Saki or Henry James read for the first time: hair-raising and clever, a tour de force of sensation and a triumph of craft.
Movies these days are abuzz with all kinds of paranormal activity, most of it aimed at delivering easy, superficial terror. The scariest scene in “A Ghost Story” may be the most human, when a random guy at a party won’t stop talking about the meaningless of existence in an indifferent universe. Dude, we know! Shut up! Ghostie’s silence at that moment speaks volumes, and his inscrutable presence is a reminder that fright may be an unjust, irrational response to him and his kind. We fear what we don’t understand, and a ghost is only human, after all. A.O. Scott, New York Times.