Somewhere in the de-anchored, hypnotically floating timeline of “A Ghost Story,” M (Rooney Mara) lies on the wooden floor of her house listening to a song. The song is called “I Get Overwhelmed.” Her partner wrote it before he died in a car crash just beyond her driveway.
The film cuts back and forth to the moment he showed it to her, from the tinny sound barely audible from her headphones as she lies on the floor in grief to the immersive first listen, inextricably linking the two moments in time. She reaches up with her arm along the floor until her fingers are just millimeters away from the hospital morgue sheet hanging over the ghost of her partner. He remains just out of reach.
What makes David Lowery’s micro-budget film a masterpiece is the way in which it radically re-encodes the filmic construction of grief without breaking the fabric of the film itself. Instead, Lowery breaks us — repeatedly — by reminding us that loss can’t be written off with some tears and a breakdown before a prompt resumption of reality. Sorrow lingers. We hang on, and that attachment is actualized in the ghost of C (Casey Affleck), who stands sentinel, locked in place and adrift in time. We become his mirror, a second ghost in a story dominated by stillness and silence, by simple visuals and subversions of expectations.
There’s an untethered nature to C’s ghost, for whom moments feel like centuries and centuries flit by like moments. The film’s ability to sink into time and then soar above it is a testament to an exquisite leveraging of medium — Lowery grasps perfectly how to modulate framing, angles, positioning and shot length to convey a deep, inarticulable truth about time and our perception of it.
In one of the film’s most excruciating moments, we sit in utter stillness watching M return from the hospital to find a pie left by her real estate agent. We watch her eat it, bite by bite as the sheet-covered specter of her partner looms blurry in the background. Both C and we as the audience are voyeurs to her grief, the camera’s stillness perfectly mimicking C’s.
For several minutes that feel like hours, we watch her shove bites of pie into her mouth, her composure slowly abandoned in a subtle gradient until tears stream down her face. She continues to eat, until finally she tosses the pie aside to sprint to the bathroom, passing C by mere inches. Words can’t describe the effect this scene produces, but the gravity of that effect is a testament to the authenticity Lowery has achieved.
“A Ghost Story” feels real because its emotional palette isn’t monochromatic. In a touching moment of levity, C looks out the window to see another ghost in the adjacent house (a cameo by Kesha), and the two engage in a silent, subtitled exchange as comedic as it is melancholic. It’s impressive enough to successfully map the childish, ghost-in-a-sheet image onto something touching and profound, but the film’s moments of humor lend their own depth and breadth to this slow-cinema endeavor.
Lowery even plays with presentation, electing for a boxy, 1.33:1 aspect ratio with rounded corners that imbues the film with a home-video feel and, at times, a sense of claustrophobia. There is a confluence here of Lowery’s ability to direct Affleck (under a sheet, no less) into an ethereal presence, Andrew Droz Palermo’s alternatively hyper-mundane and hypnotically dreamlike cinematography and composer Daniel Hart’s aching, violin-imbued score that in the smallest strokes attaches a sense of profundity to every beat of the film.
As “A Ghost Story” approaches its conclusion, it grows increasingly abstract, passing far into a technological future before dropping back to the days of settlers. It’s the only sequence in which the film feels disjoint from its sense of intimacy, but as C rides the past back into the present, the film emerges as a cycle — intertwining circles of history that all arrive back at the same moment, a process that both traps C and eventually sets him free.
“A Ghost Story” is pensive but not excessive. Its scope is grand, but its focus is minute. It is startling in its subversions of both conscious and subconscious expectations. And, like its ghost, it lingers long after the final shot. It is the best expression of form this year. It’s a movie that will endure time — like so many of the characters within it try to. And, hopefully, it’s a movie that will help you do the same.