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Grief Hangs Around At Home In 'A Ghost Story'

Jul 7, 2017
Originally published on July 7, 2017 6:18 pm

Just a few days after director David Lowery finished shooting Disney's live-action Pete's Dragon, he started a project that could hardly have been more different — the micro-budget, quietly revelatory, poetic, meditative, and aptly titled A Ghost Story.

Lowery shot in secret and very quickly. His setting, an entirely unremarkable suburban rambler that was slated for demolition, which allowed him to destroy it when necessary, and his chief storytelling device a childlike representation of a ghost — a figure draped in a white bedsheet.

His two leads — a married couple, known only as "C" and "M" — are played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, who'd starred in his Ain't Them Bodies Saints a few years back, and who have an easy rapport that was probably essential to filming on a short shoot.

Affleck's C is quiet, a composer who's better at expressing himself in music than in words. Mara's M seems more comfortable saying what she's feeling, but she gets very little bounce from her spouse. She wants to move, he's attached for some unfathomable reason to the house. She loves him, and he, her, but their relationship is difficult. And then, abruptly, he dies in an auto accident just yards from the house. At the hospital morgue, M says her goodbyes, and leaves the body on its slab, in stillness.

When no one's around, C leaves too. He sits up on the slab, still covered by a sheet, looking for all the world like a Halloween costume with black holes for eyes. A ghost-in-ghost's-clothing, he begins to wander the crowded halls of the hospital unnoticed. A portal opens — a chance to move toward the light — but instead, C returns to the house he didn't want to leave, to be with his grieving wife.

M does grieve — sorting through their possessions with eyes brimming, stress-eating an entire pie in one harrowing, uninterrupted take, listening to C's music, all with the ghost of C unseen, but ever in a corner of the frame.

And then, as she must, M moves on. She packs, looks around one last time, and drives away. C's ghost can't. He's bound to this spot, through years, through other residents, even when the home is torn down, gradually slipping away from this world, until he's entirely unmoored in time...but still stuck.

Director David Lowery started out as a film editor, and you could make the case that A Ghost Story proves what good editing can do on its own. After three years spent making an effects-heavy Disney epic, this almost amounts to a cinematic cleanse. $100,000 budget, tiny cast, finished in a couple of weeks with no effects, almost no dialogue — except for one scene where some partying grad students take up residence in C's house, and are stoned enough to articulate what you imagine a ghost might be thinking

"We build our legacy piece by piece," says one, "and maybe the whole world will remember you, or maybe just a couple of people, but you do what you can to make sure you're still around after you're gone."

I should mention that the film is virtually without plot, so it requires some patience. Major stars and that title notwithstanding, A Ghost Story is not a Saturday-night date movie. More a provocative art film in the European sense. Though barely 87 minutes, it unfolds in long, static shots, most of them without faces to hang onto. It's almost a film without genre, and by the end it's become a story untethered from time itself.

Still, it manages to be achingly intimate, and somehow optimistic. A meditation on loss but also on legacy — on our enduring need to endure.

We all hope to leave something behind — children, memories, a monument of some sort. Lowery will leave A Ghost Story. And if my own experience is any indication, it will linger.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The low-budget movie "A Ghost Story" stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. The film, shot for a hundred thousand dollars, was made quickly and in secret just days after Director David Lowery finished the Disney film "Pete's Dragon." Critic Bob Mondello says it's hard to imagine more different films coming from the same director.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The two leads in "A Ghost Story," a married couple, are known only as C and M. Casey Affleck's C is quiet, a composer who's better at expressing himself in music than in words. Rooney Mara's M seems more comfortable saying what she's feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A GHOST STORY")

ROONEY MARA: (As M) When I was little and we used to move all the time, I would write these notes. And I would fold them up really small, and I would hide them.

CASEY AFFLECK: (As C) What did they say?

MARA: (As M) They were just, like, things I wanted to remember so that if I ever wanted to go back, there'd be a piece of me there waiting.

MONDELLO: She loves him, and he her, but their relationship is difficult. She wants to move. He is dragging his feet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A GHOST STORY")

AFFLECK: (As C) I don't want what you want.

MARA: (As M) 'Cause you want to stay here.

AFFLECK: (As C) Mm-hm (ph).

MARA: (As M) Why?

MONDELLO: Shortly after this conversation, C is killed in an auto accident. At the hospital morgue, M says her goodbyes and leaves the body on its slab in stillness. When no one's around, C leaves, too. He sits up on the slab still covered by a sheet, looking for all the world like a child's Halloween costume with black holes for eyes. He's a ghost in ghost's clothing who begins to wander the crowded halls of the hospital unnoticed.

A portal opens, a chance to move toward the light. Instead, C returns to the house he didn't want to leave to be with his grieving wife. M does grieve - sorting through their possessions with eyes brimming, stress-eating an entire pie in one harrowing, uninterrupted take, listening to C's music, all with the ghost of C unseen, but ever in a corner of the frame.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GET OVERWHELMED")

DARK ROOMS: (Singing) Are you running late? Did you sleep too much? All the awful dreams felt real enough.

MONDELLO: And then, as she must, M moves on. C's ghost can't. He's bound to this spot through years, through other residents, even when the home is torn down, gradually slipping away from this world until he's entirely unmoored in time but still stuck. Director David Lowery started out as a film editor. And you could make the case that "A Ghost Story" proves what good editing can do on its own. After three years spent making the effects-heavy "Pete's Dragon," this almost amounts to a cinematic cleanse - microbudget, tiny cast, finished in a couple of weeks with no effects, almost no dialogue except for one scene where some partying grad students take up residence in C's house and are stoned enough to articulate what you imagine a ghost might be thinking.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A GHOST STORY")

WILL OLDHAM: (As Prognosticator) Maybe the whole world will remember you, or maybe just a couple of people. But you do what you can to make sure you're still around after you're gone.

MONDELLO: I should mention that the film is virtually without plot, so it requires some patience. Major stars and that title notwithstanding, "A Ghost Story" is not a Saturday-night date movie, more a provocative art film in the European sense. Though barely 87 minutes, it unfolds in long, static shots, most of them without faces to hang on to. It's almost a film without genre, and by the end it's become a story untethered from time itself. Still, it manages to be achingly intimate, and somehow optimistic, a meditation on loss, but also on legacy, on our enduring need to endure. We all hope to leave something behind - children, memories. Filmmaker David Lowery will leave "A Ghost Story." And if my own experience is any indication, it will linger. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.