Easily the most divisive movie of the summer (at least four people walked out of the press screening), David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” (A24) is neither as amusing as “Beetlejuice” nor as emotionally compelling as “Ghost,” two of the most popular modern specter stories. Aside from notably reuniting Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, who appeared together in Lowery’s 2013 “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” the film takes a multitude of risks, most of which simply don’t pay off for the audience (or the characters, for that matter).
A young couple identified as C (Affleck) and M (Mara), live in a rundown suburban ranch house. One of the attractions is that it came with a piano, something that appealed to musician C. There is a hint that the house may be haunted when the couple is awakened one night when something (not visible) strikes some of the piano keys. M makes it clear that she wants to move, and the couple spends time negotiating a future that would include relocation.
Sadly, C is killed in a head-on collision near the house. After his body is identified by M at the morgue and she leaves, his white-sheet-covered body sits up and, with two cut-out eye-holes, wanders the halls of the hospital, eventually finding his way home.
Once there, C’s ghost never leaves. He observes the early days of M’s mourning process which involves an extended pie-eating and subsequent vomiting sequence. She tries dating. She cleans out the closets. She eventually moves out of the house.
Unable to leave the house, C’s ghost spends his time trying to dig out a note that M wrote and stuffed into a crack in the wall before she moved. He communicates, via subtitles, with a ghost in a flowered sheet he sees in a neighbor’s window. He’s there when the next tenants, a Spanish-speaking mother and two small children (for whom there are no subtitles provided), move in. It is in these scenes that he acts like a movie ghost, scaring the kids, knocking over picture frames, opening the kitchen cabinets and sending the dinnerware crashing.
The next set of tenants includes a bunch of party-throwing hipsters. At one such party, a pierced and tatted man (Will Oldham) – a party guest or resident – pontificates on the meaning of life. Before long the house is abandoned and in serious disrepair. More time passes and a bulldozer arrives to level the diminished house, transporting us into the future where a high-rise office building is constructed on the site. Then it’s back to the distant past, when settlers in a covered wagon first built the house and then were slaughtered by natives, bringing us full-circle to when C and M became residents. All the while, the ghost C is there.
Shot in 4:30 aspect ratio, as if you were looking through a ViewMaster (for those old enough to remember that) or at a photo printed during the 1970s (ditto), Lowery manages to make a movie that clocks in under 90 minutes feel endless. While he deserves to be commended for doing something out of the ordinary, and probably out of most people’s comfort zones, the end doesn’t justify the means. Lowery appeared to be going for Terrence Malick, but all we get is the ick. Rating: D+