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'A Ghost Story' movie review: Weird? Or wonderful?


Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star in director David Lowery’s film.
I can’t confess to having grasped every cinematic metaphor director David Lowery deploys in his Malick-ian drama “A Ghost Story.” This is an arthouse drama through and through, and it makes no pretense about its intention to challenge viewers, to prod them to think, to summon an emotional response.
While that refusal by Lowery (” Pete’s Dragon “) to spoon-feed his audience might push many mainstream viewers away, it is at the same time a big part of what makes his thrillingly unconventional, deeply profound movie work as well as it does. This isn’t an “I-can’t-wait-for-the-sequel” movie. And despite the word “ghost” in the title, it is certainly not a horror movie. This is a sit-quietly-through-the-credits movie, a talk-about-it-on-the-drive-home movie. Maybe even a go-see-it-a-second-time movie.
Even then, there’s no guarantee that answers will present themselves. But it will get the gears turning.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star, just as they did in Lowery’s fetching Shreveport-shot drama ” Ain’t Them Bodies Saints ” back in 2013. Here, they play a married couple who, before the story even really gets going, is struck by tragedy. Affleck’s character, in the prime of his life, is killed in a car accident.
For the rest of the film, he haunts his mourning wife — or, more accurately, he simply hangs around their Texas house as she, wounded and aching, tries to re-start her life. Meanwhile, he appears unsure what to do or where to go next. All he seems to know is that he needs to be close to her.
It quickly becomes apparent that “A Ghost Story” is more about his journey than hers, as Affleck leads us through what ends up being a small story boasting big ideas — about love and loss, but also about the mark we all leave behind, or fail to leave behind, on the world.
In the process, Lowery earns points for his willingness to eschew any number of filmmaking standards. That starts with the aspect ratio of the film which, rather than the familiar letterbox format, is an old-fashioned square. The corners of that square are rounded, which, with the film’s slightly washed-out colors, suggests an old photograph — or an old memory of an old life. It’s an unusual but beautiful touch, highlighting Lowery’s knack for creating emotion through visuals — as well as a constant reminder that this isn’t an ordinary movie.
He’s also unafraid to indulge in long stretches — 10 minutes, 15 minutes — absent any and all dialogue. Rather than costing the film any narrative momentum, however, it only adds to its already significant emotional weight, as his visuals and well-established atmosphere carry the weight of the film effortlessly.
There are other moments, however, in which Lowery’s dedication to breaking with convention pushes the whole experiment dangerously close to self-parody. Affleck’s character, for example, isn’t a CG ghost. He wears a white sheet over his head, with two black holes representing eyes. Weirdly, though, it works — once you resist the initial temptation to chuckle or make a Great Pumpkin joke. (Side bet: I’m giving 2 to 1 odds that Jimmy Kimmel or one of his presenters will wear a similar outfit at some point in next year’s Oscars telecast.)
In another scene, Mara’s character — wracked by grief — slumps to the kitchen floor and eats a pie. The whole pie. In one extended shot that feels as if it goes on three or four minutes too long. Clearly, Lowery wants us to consider something while watching Mara drown her sorrows in a deep dish, but the shot goes on so long that any emotion and poignancy soon drains away, and all that we’re left to think is, “I wonder what kind of pie that is.”
But for every time the film stumbles it has two more scenes that score. Chief among them is an arresting mid-movie monologue delivered brilliantly by actor/musician Will Oldham that comes closer than any other moment to providing answers to the movie’s overarching questions.
Even then, though, questions remain when it’s all over. (Most notable is one involving the contents of a certain note written on a scrap of paper.) But when you get right down to it, that’s a big part of what makes “A Ghost Story” work.
Some movies are valuable because they provide answers. Lowery’s film works because it dares to ask tough questions — and it leaves it up to the audience to do the heavy lifting from there.
A GHOST STORY 3 stars, out of 5
Snapshot: Casey Affleck stars in a supernatural drama about a recently deceased man who returns as a ghost — complete with white sheet over his head — in an effort to reconnect with the wife he left behind .
What works: The film is thrillingly unconventional, both from a visual and a narrative standpoint, helping it become a moving and thought-provoking cinematic experience.
What doesn’t: There are moments in which Lowery’s arthouse instincts push his film dangerously close to self-parody.
Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham. Director: David Lowery. MPAA rating: R, for brief language and a disturbing image. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. Where: Find New Orleans showtimes.

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