When leaving a screening of A Ghost Story, I turned the wrong way upon exiting the theater. I've been to this particular theater hundreds of times, and should have known precisely where I was. My disorientation told me that the movie had worked on me in ways that I might not fully have appreciated while I was watching.
For the record, it immediately should be stated that A Ghost Story is no conventional horror movie. It's meditative and sorrowful and it risks ridicule by having the ghost of its title walk through most of the movie in a bed sheet with eye holes that have been blackened.
This may sound Casper the Friendly Ghost. Don't be fooled. This ghost has the lonely majesty of a true wraith. The ghost put me in mind of a line from Wadsworth, the one about wandering lonely as a cloud, except this ghost doesn't wander, it's rooted to one spot.
Director David Lowrey begins the movie by introducing us to a young couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara). They're in bed in a house that's relatively isolated from any neighbors. The two cuddle, nuzzle and whisper to one another so softly, they might be characters in a Terrence Malick movie.
The next thing we know, Affleck's unnamed character is dead; we see him slumped over the wheel of his car, victim of an off-screen auto accident.
Rooney's character then views her husband's body in a hospital morgue -- or perhaps he was not a husband but the other half of two lovers living together. She gently covers his face with a shroud like sheet and walks out of the room. Lowery's camera lingers. Suddenly, the ghost of the departed character played by Affleck bolts upright. The movie's ghost is born.
Perhaps not knowing where to go, the ghost heads back to the home he shared with Mara's character, the place where they loved, argued and worked. His sheet trails behind him like the train of a wedding dress.
After arriving at his former home, the ghost watches as Mara's character eats a pie that has been dropped off by a neighbor as an offer of solace. She devours almost the entire pie, perhaps as a way of trying to digest her grief.
It's impossible to know whether the body under this sheet belongs to Affleck, but if it does, he gives a real performance, showing disturbances to the ghost's mute existence. When Mara's character shows up with another man, enough time having passed for her to consider moving on, the ghost's agitation becomes palpable.
Eventually, Mara's character leaves the home, which then is occupied by a succession of tenants, including a single mom and her two children and a group of people at a party.
In this second group, we meet a man who delivers a dour, extended monologue about the impermanence of everything -- including the entire universe. Everything in our quotidian existences, the stuff over which we fret and obsess, is of little ultimate consequence, he says. Viewed against such a vast panorama, the result of everything is nothing.
You can take this monologue seriously or you can view it as a satiric comment on a sure way to ruin a party by introducing a conversational element that's sure to lower everyone's spirits.
Perhaps to define the world that we're in, we also learn that Affleck isn't playing the movie's only ghost. Staring out a window, he sees a lonely neighbor ghost at a nearby house. They are able to communicate without speaking.
"I'm waiting for someone,'' says the other ghost.
"Who," our main ghost asks.
"I don't remember," is the reply.
This exchange suggests that even the most sharply defined purpose can vanish into the ether of time. This other ghost has forgotten its primary reason for existence, something like when a name we should know disappears into the haze of an encroaching mental miasma. We're sure it's there somewhere, but can't summon it.
More eerie than scary, Ghost Story includes a few typical ghostly activities -- books tossed off a shelf and shattered dishes, but it's not these paranormal stunts that prove unsettling. It's the feeling that we've been unmoored in the sadness of passing eons.
Eventually, Lowrey actually moves about it time, showing us scenes that have or will take place on the very ground where this otherwise nondescript home has been built.
Fair to say that the movie's ghost has something to say about all of us. We're here now. We'll die. Our spirits may cling to a familiar spot, but then we're gone -- not forgotten or forlorn. Just gone.
Viewed that way, A Ghost Story morphs into a cosmic tragedy, a requiem not for one lost soul, but for every one of us fragile beings.