I’ve never believed in ghosts, but movies may be the next best thing. I’m certainly far from the first to compare the two: after all, a movie theater is a room where apparitions of light and shadow take the form of a person or a moment whose original no longer exists. The dividing line can be as simple as a cut, a fade, or a presence implied where none is seen. For this reason, some of the most effectively ghostly special effects predate not only the digital revolution, and not only color film stock, but sound cinema itself. So credit David Lowery for creating an appropriately elemental spirit and a proudly analog look—even as a digital rental—with A Ghost Story. A nameless man and wife (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) live together until he dies in a tragic accident. From there, looking like a man under a sheet with holes cut out for eyes, his ghost haunts their old house and watches both mournfully and angrily as time moves on without him.
It is not the easiest film to get into, just like any film that treats its actors more as photographic models than characters. And as it rockets off into the mysteries of space and time, the true fullness of its cosmic aspiration is beyond the film’s reach. Its level of insight is no more profound, or less obvious, than the philosophical rap about tiny human footprints in an infinite universe that a guest (Sundance stalwart Will Oldham) articulately delivers at a shindig after the house has been invaded by post-grads. In other words, A Ghost Story is not so much the wisdom of a life lived as it is dinner party conversation for intellects of a certain age. But it is also a work of cinematic imagination from an up-and-comer who wants to build on the very Malick-isms that have turned so many moviegoers off. The middle passage, where time slips between cuts and pans, is beautifully detailed. The authentically muted portrayal of Rooney Mara’s grief, done with a minimum of dialogue or actorly emoting, has stuck with me. Even the moments where it risks silliness—and doesn’t always come away clean—have a lucid audacity to them. It’s certainly not horror, but it is empathetic to why you would haunt a world where everything keeps sliding away. That emotional core works, and any sad sack could tell you it means as much for the living as it does for the dead.
A Ghost Story is available to rent on iTunes. This Halloween, try fun-sized pretension.