An empty exercise in imitative long-take aestheticism, A Ghost Story fills its distractingly round-cornered frame with endless repetitions on a visual gag. There’s no fleshed-out meaning, emotionally engaging characters, or dramatic incident in David Lowery’s latest feature, and it barely has a plot: Garbed in an opaque white bed sheet with eyeholes cutout, a ghost (which the narrative suggests is played by Casey Affleck, though it could really be anyone under there) reacts, usually with passivity, to the various occupants of what was once his home and to the home’s slow corrosion in the future.
A Ghost Story’s opening moments feign a kind of horror-film setup, one abstracted to the point of tonal blankness by the time the actual haunting begins. A couple, credited as “C” and “M” (Affleck and Rooney Mara), creep through their Texas home to investigate the source of mysterious bumps in the night. The first of many laboriously elongated takes comes shortly thereafter: a very slow pan from a wide shot of C and M’s house to a car wreck just a few yards away. The next scene finds this accident’s sole designated casualty suddenly reanimated, which sets up an unresolved friction between the ghost’s blatantly humorous visual presence and Lowery’s insistence on approaching his film and its themes with a dire sense of self-seriousness.
The tone here is so ineffective because the narrative is prone to obliqueness: C is a bearded singer-songwriter bro defined by scattered, always-fragmented flashback scenes of his relationship with M, and by the shitty, reverb-laden indie music he home-records—which intermittently, and cloyingly, serves as a soundtrack for the film. For M, we have even less to go on than that. Maybe she has a job? She at least definitely has a friend willing to make her a pie—which she gobbles down almost in its entirety in a single take, in a scene that acts as something of a litmus test for the film. Will you, perhaps, just nod in agreement at Lowery’s self-evident affection for Tsai Ming-liang movies? Or will you ponder what character depth is actually being communicated by watching a long scene of someone emotionlessly binge-eating a pie?
We do at least learn marginally more from Mara’s pie-eating than we do from a later tangent involving a “prognosticator” played by Will Oldham, who delivers a lengthy oral history of humankind—seemingly meant to be taken as sincere—to a bunch of unrealistically rapt partygoers. But really, A Ghost Story is probably better off in the sequences that get rid of humans entirely, cycling through alien tableaus of refuse and derelict architecture in the key of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens. It’s certainly better off when it doesn’t try to do anything with minorities, who factor into this narrative twice: a Hispanic family that reacts with an offensive stoicism to the presence of a destructive poltergeist (because of course they believe in spirits!); and unseen-but-heard 19th-century Native Americans who leave the bodies of unnamed white settlers dead on the ground and filled with arrows.
If it isn’t clear, A Ghost Story becomes something of a sci-fi film, stretching beyond its initial, contemporary setting and into an unknown future, and then circling back around through the distant past. The conceit that motivates this turn makes the science behind, say, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color seem about as naturally explicable as that of An Inconvenient Truth—and at the same time, it’s a conceit that basically rips off, then dumbs down, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. So even when A Ghost Story manages some striking imagery, an appreciation for it is mitigated by both the lack of thinking that’s gone into getting us to these time-traveling destinations and the silly, white-sheeted eyesore plopped plainly into almost every composition.