A static shot of Rooney Mara eating a pie for 5 minutes. Casey Affleck is underneath a bed sheet with two eye holes in them for 95% of the runtime. A cameo by Kesha. Writer/Director David Lowery’s unconventional indie drama film has lived in the membrane of film fans since it’s Sundance debut back in 2017. The audacious premise is as follows: A recently deceased, white-sheeted ghost returns to his suburban home to console his bereft wife, only to find that in his spectral state he has become unstuck in time, forced to watch passively as the life he knew and the woman he loves slowly slip away. There’s so much more to A Ghost Story ’s very straightforward premise though. A Ghost Story is a quietly grand romantic mystery, a metaphysical vision of love that is inseparable from Lowery’s wildly inventive yet controlled way with the very stuff of movies: movement, performance, space, time, light, color, reflections, effects, talk, sound, and, for that matter, silence.
A Ghost Story ’s fiercely audacious originality is on view from the start. When Casey Affleck’s character “C” and Rooney Mara’s character “M” sit together, they are, in a sense, apart. In the sparsely furnished living room, each use a laptop. Lowery uses the simplest of devices — focus, keeping C sharply in the foreground and M in the background, suggesting the distance of intimacy, a vague self-absorption that will, of course, eventually become clear. It’s apparent that a change is about to happen. M is doing a major cleaning, which Lowery captures in a single ingeniously conceived and deftly realized image: a tilt of the camera down from the sky to a house sitting on a broad swath of overgrown grass. The camera tracks horizontally as M drags a chest laboriously from the front door of a small house, toward the camera, as it passes at a tightly measured lateral glide from one side of the bare path to the other; she deposits it curbside with a pile of other garbage, and the camera then reverses course. The simple movement of the image along with that of the woman is “unmotivated,” which is to say that it’s not done to follow her movement, to emphasize her particular gesture, or to reveal any additional narrative details. It makes the moment feel as if it has its own distinctive identity and, moreover, makes each of the elements of an apparently unified frame burst forth in its own disparate identity.
The multiplicity of elements in a single frame — the seeming miracle of things being together in the same time and place — is one of Lowery’s decisive visual themes. When the couple is together in bed at night, a seeming slam of the strings of the pair’s upright piano by an invisible visitor leads to a twilight prowl that Lowery again controls with precise focus. When they return to bed, the result is an exaltedly intimate nuzzle in a single shot that has a tightrope walker’s tensely thrilling uninterrupted duration. (Lowery’s control of time throughout the film is exquisite.) The interruption comes with another image, in daytime, of the front of the house; Lowery pans very slowly from it toward the street, where two cars sit silently, having catastrophically crashed; one of them contains C, who is dead. After M goes to the morgue to observe the body and leaves, the sheet rises with a jolt and then makes its way through the hospital. The ghost passes in silence through vast fields and eventually reaches the house. Existing in an alternate realm of time, the ghost also has a tempo of its own, nearly shuffle-like glide that seems to temper the tempo of the entire movie — as if the movie itself were haunted, inhabited by this practical, ever-so-slightly yet overwhelmingly comical, silent ghost, who’s invisible and inaudible to the living.
Enter, the infamous pie scene. A real-estate agent comes into the house, under the ghost’s watchful gaze; she leaves a pie for M, along with a note about showing the house, and she leaves. M arrives and finds the pie; she begins to eat it while standing at the table — and finishes almost the entire pie while sitting on the kitchen floor, and then dashes to the bathroom to throw it up, all while being watched by the ghost, who’s there in the frame along with M but invisible to her. The scene has become a talking point amongst film snobs and average viewers, critical quibbles and overzealous complaints that suggest, above all, the narrow range of directorial creations and the limited sense of imagination to which many critics have become conditioned (basically all YouTube based critics).
Grief is mind-bending and that people are weird. But M’s increasingly frenzied pie-eating is far from the only thing that’s going on in the scene. There are M’s small gestures as she stands at the kitchen sink, opens the garbage can, goes through the mail, etc. There is the changing afternoon light on the kitchen wall. And, as she digs with increasing stubbornness at the pie, there is the ghost standing in the background, looking impassively at the woman he loves, whose suffering he has caused but whom he is unable to comfort. Though the action is of a one-line-screenplay simplicity, the images seem alive with the impingement of a world of nature and personal connections, of impulses and memories, in a single, pain-streaked but nearly comedic astonishment. Lowery’s alertness to the ordinary sounds that embody the existential weight of the gestures of daily life.
Lowery daringly advances time throughout the film in cuts and the leaps ahead in time are matched by audacious shifts in space by way of architecture and urbanism, leading the ghost to contemplate a modern office tower in various stages of construction as well as the spectacle of city life that’s on view from its heights. After the ghost C chases a happy family out of the house where he’s awaiting M’s return, other people take their place: apparent art-world adults who hold a party at which a barroom philosopher delivers an extended, bombastic monologue about the futility of creation in the face of the ultimate destruction of the universe. The ghost’s silent contemplation (and dramatic response) and, for that matter, the entire film itself, is a refutation of that materialist point of view. Coming from a personal standpoint, I’m not sure what exactly draws my appeal to A Ghost Story. A movie such as this should not work where most of the shots are fixed on a tripod, while we watch space and time occur with little to no interruption. I guess it might be because I have never seen a movie like this before. Where moving frames can be so cinematic when a majority of the shots are static, and presented in a 1:33.1 boxed aspect ratio. One last thing I admire is Lowrey’s love for the film as a whole. In an (illegally downloaded) .pdf booklet, Lowery explains this: “…I’ve always wanted my movies tangible, tactile, full of textures, so that you might imagine what each frame would feel like should you reach out and touch it. I love the idea of movies as objects you can hold in your hands, and feel the weight and shape of”. Movies can be whatever the viewer wants, and A Ghost Story provides its own supreme and cosmic justification: what Lowery films, with his rarefied fusion of style and subject, is the existence of the soul.