Casey Affleck covers his face with a white sheet to play a ghost in a new film at Sundance. The result is a surprisingly heartbreaking look at grief and remembrance, writes critic Sam Adams.

A movie in which Casey Affleck spends most of his time covered by a bedsheet sounds like a missing segment from The Five Obstructions, and there are times, especially in its early stages, when David Lowery’s A Ghost Story seems like a result of a particularly outlandish dare. Perhaps a quarter of the way into its 87-minute running time, Affleck’s character, never named on screen and identified in the credits only as C, turns up dead in the wreckage of a car crash, and for the rest of the movie, barring the occasional flashback, he’s covered in a white sheet with cut-out eyeholes, haunting his bereaved widow and the house they once lived in.

You will find it hard to wave off the movie’s naked depiction of unresolved grief

Lowery, who squeezed in A Ghost Story’s 19-day shoot after wrapping the Disney fable Pete’s Dragon and before his next studio movie, The Old Man and the Gun, is practically daring his audience as well: daring them not to laugh at the sight of an A-list actor dressed like a trick-or-treating child, to bite down hard on the tendency to wave off the movie’s naked depiction of unresolved grief.

And it does take a while for the movie to find its groove (or, perhaps, for the viewer to find it): the initial scenes in which Affleck and Mara, identified only as M, bicker about whether to abandon their rural house for an apartment in the city feel stilted and shapeless, more like acting exercises than part of a completed film. The exception is one striking long take in which, prompted by the mysterious vibration of a piano’s strings in the middle of the night, they cuddle up to each other in bed, slowly kissing each other before they fall back to sleep.

It turns out the movie doesn’t need to convincingly establish their relationship for us to feel their loss. Seen only from the perspective of the ghost who now invisibly haunts their home, Mara’s largely silent sorrow is moving beyond words. She turns a scene – filmed largely in an unbroken take – in which her character grief-eats the better part of an entire pie left by a well-wishing friend into a miniature symphony of hunger and loss, capped by a quick sprint to the nearest toilet.

Memento mori

After that, the movie begins to sprint through time. The house is vacated and reoccupied as Affleck watches from behind his blackened eyeholes. (There is another actor credited as Ghost Phase 2 but it’s genuinely him under there at least some of the time.) Although he apparently possesses the ability to move objects in classic poltergeist style, he’s a passive witness for much of the time, a blank slate on which we can project our own experience of loss or those suggested by extensive use of the Kuleshov effect, a technique by which neutral expressions are given meaning through editing.

It’s a movie that frequently gives you a choice whether to laugh or cry

Although the change the house goes through means that at some point we must be years into the future, Lowery and co adopt a timeless look. Although the movie was shot digitally, Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography adopts the nearly square format of 16mm film, right down to the rounded corners. It’s as if we’re far in the future, watching an artefact pulled from the wreckage of some long-gone civilization, finding our way into its story through the unspoken language of cinema without needing to grasp the particulars of a given situation.

The last film Lowery brought to Sundance was Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a gorgeous but derivative crime thriller that wore its Terrence Malick affectations on its checkered sleeves. A Ghost Story has touches of Malick as well, especially early on, when shots of Affleck and Mara’s domestic life are intercut with blazing starfields and the image of splintered, rainbow-coloured light undulating in the darkness. But there’s an underlying quality of deadpan humour to go along with the movie’s cosmic viewpoint, rather than the orchestral lunges of Malick’s recent movies. It’s a movie that frequently gives you the choice to laugh or cry, or to stay poised between the two. A Ghost Story is a deliberate abstraction, and as such, it’s easy to appreciate its conceptual audacity and its visual beauty while still feeling remote from its overt sentimentality. But the further it drifts from its initial setup, the more moving it becomes. It’s pushing toward something simple and pure, almost elemental in the way that spaces are haunted by the memories they contain, and how we may leave those spaces but they never leave us. (Some of the transitions recall the heartbreaking final shots of Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.) We start out watching a ghost, and by the end, we become ghosts ourselves.

★★★★☆ 

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