“Every love story is a ghost story,” David Foster Wallace wrote more than once. That evocative observation is probed in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, a film that occasionally reaches a similar level of eloquence.
Lowery’s fourth feature reunites Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, the leads of his second, the dolorous, stiff neo-western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013). In A Ghost Story, they play a couple, respectively identified only (and not until the final credits) as M and C. We first see the pair cuddled on the couch, their affectionate murmurings interrupted by a flash of ectoplasm on the wall. The spouses don’t appear frightened, though, perhaps feeling that the cocoon of their intimacy provides unbreachable protection.
The opening — and best — scenes of A Ghost Story are animated by such moments of deep conjugal closeness. After M and C are roused from their sleep by some supernatural sounds, they calmly return to bed; an unhurried take shows them wordlessly, half-drowsily navigating their immediate erotic needs.
But too soon Lowery switches from the specific to the cosmic, as the screen fills with the star-filled heavens and Daniel Hart’s score thickens with solemn strings. A Terrence Malick epigone, Lowery also relies too heavily on that elder filmmaker’s fondness for crepuscular light and time-toggling, impoverished signifiers of what Malick likes to call “life’s journey.”
An extremely unsophisticated device, however, proves strangely potent, at least initially: a white sheet with eyes cut out. This simple ghost costume adorns Affleck’s character after Mara’s identifies C’s body at the morgue. The getup is undeniably goofy but also atavistic; the elemental design made me think of the similar — if all-black and more menacing — garb worn by the phantom in Maya Deren’s avant-garde wellspring Meshes of the Afternoon (1943).
The C specter returns to the compact Texas ranch house he shared with M, watching his beloved consume a chocolate pie, a real-time episode of emotional eating (and emesis) that’s not much more than a misguided salute to Chantal Akerman’s masterwork of mundanity Jeanne Dielman. That this episode of sugar-snacking is the most we see Mara do after C’s death makes me pray that the talented actress will take a break from movies set in the Lone Star State — the backdrop for Saints and Malick’s Song to Song, a movie that also underutilizes the performer — and agree to star only in projects that take place outside the region favored by these quasi-macho, quasi-mystical romantics. (Maybe Mara should stick with the cities and states traversed in Carol?)
M moves out, others move in, time rewinds and advances and doubles back again, Kesha makes a cameo: The ghost bears witness to it all and even makes a friend, a fellow sheeted spook, haunting the next house over. But after this meeting of wraiths takes a cloying turn, I found it difficult to continue suspending my disbelief. Lowery, in a way, had given up the ghost.
A Ghost Story
Written and directed by David Lowery
Opens July 7