David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” is best seen a second time. It’s not the usual haunting, although Lowery’s unusually thoughtful picture concerns a dead man’s ghost, his widow’s grief, and the bitter fact of life’s deadline.
Lowery’s fifth feature is simple enough in its narrative. But Lowery doesn’t concern himself with what we’re used to seeing in movie versions of an afterlife. You experience “A Ghost Story” first for what it isn’t, and a second time for what it is.
It begins with a man (Casey Affleck) and a woman (Rooney Mara) in a one-story house. They’re moving. “We can probably find a better one,” the musician husband says, referring to the modest piano in the living room, the one they’re leaving behind.
At the top of the movie, the wife remembers her childhood, when she moved around a lot, and she used to “write these notes. And I’d fold them up really small, and hide them in different places. So if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there.”
The house, it seems, is haunted by the occasional bump in the night. Then the husband dies in a car accident. His stunned widow identifies the body, lifting the sheet on the hospital slab and confirming it’s him. She leaves. Then, under that same sheet, now with two eyeholes cut out, he wanders out of the hospital, unseen by living humans, and returns home to see how his wife is doing.
“A Ghost Story” superbly sustains a mood of rapt expectation. This film squanders nothing and rushes little. In one five-minute sequence, Mara’s character consumes a neighbor’s fruit pie in a single, emotional gorge. She never sees the dead man in the sheet, but she does catch glimmers of light against the wall.
A few things don’t work. In one scene, the house, now a rental unit inhabited by a party dominated by boozy philosophy, becomes the setting for a self-conscious monologue about the fragility and futility of existence. It’s a bit much, in a movie that is otherwise just right.
The moody rapport between Mara and Affleck is enough to establish what “A Ghost Story” needs at the start, before Lowery takes a jump into the mundanely fantastic. Twice in the movie, a character caught between life on Earth and whatever lies beyond takes off for good, and the way it’s visualized is splendid, over before you know it. The movie plays with time, gracefully and honestly, with a full appreciation of what you leave behind. And whatever you do, as the guy at the party says, “to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone.”
‘A Ghost Story’
Rated R for brief language and a disturbing image. 1:32. Kentucky.