David Lowery’s A Ghost Story opens with an epigraph from Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House,” a tip-off that this will not be a supernatural thriller in the vein of, say, Poltergeist. Moody, pensive, and spare, it’s not out to sting you with jump scares. Rather, it meditates on such subjects as the nature of death, the passage of time, and the ephemeral traces left behind by the departed. The ghost in question is a recently deceased musician, C (Casey Affleck), who during his life shared a shabby little ranch house in rural Texas with his partner M (Rooney Mara). After he’s killed in a car accident C’s spirit returns to the house draped in a white sheet, silently looking on as M mourns for him. Eventually she sells the house and moves away, leaving him behind, at which point the film takes a series of completely unexpected turns, its plot ranging across vast distances of time and space along with its restless central figure.
All of this sounds like it could be unbearably lofty and pretentious, and I’ll admit that I was initially resistant to the use of that white sheet, which seemed like the twee contrivance of an amateur filmmaker. But this is a ghost story told entirely in earnest, and Lowery proves himself remarkably sure-footed in his command of what is extremely tricky material. Somewhat like Under the Skin or Her, A Ghost Story tackles big questions about identity and existence but grounds them in the most intimate of spaces and moments. For all its grand philosophizing, A Ghost Story is about the relationship of an individual soul to a particular place—that shabby ranch house with peeling paint and outdated kitchen cabinets and an out-of-tune piano in one corner, which compels C throughout his life and to which he keeps returning after his death.