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Intensity minus terror floats emotional ‘Ghost’

  • IDEAMAN STUDIOS

    The dead in David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” have the ability to witness humans’ pain and suffering but can intervene in only the most limited ways. Casey Affleck (under that sheet) walks among the living.

“A Ghost Story”

***

(R, 1:27)

For perfectly good reasons, the literature of grief dwells on the experiences of the living, the survivors who grapple with the pain of loss and the puzzle of absence. But maybe the dead have feelings, too. That, when you think about it, is the premise of a great many ghost stories, and also of “A Ghost Story,” David Lowery’s ingenious and affecting new film.

The specter whose story this is — let’s call him Ghostie, since even when he’s alive we never learn his name — indulges in some of the usual haunting behaviors. He knocks books off shelves, makes lightbulbs flicker, opens closet doors in the middle of the night and subjects a terrified family to a full-scale, crockery-smashing supernatural tantrum.

The effect of all of this on the viewer is strange and intense, but not exactly scary in the expected horror-movie manner. In an age of expanded, digitally enabled ectoplasmic possibility, Lowery takes a tried-and-true, low-tech, Halloween-costume approach. Ghostie is a bedsheet with eyeholes. Possibly with some digital enhancement, but basically a 6-year-old’s idea of a ghost. And why not? We intuit his moods through the drape and droop of the fabric (the thread count looks pretty decent) and infer a brooding, smoldering temperament behind the cloth. This may be because the person inside — or at least the person Ghostie used to be — is Casey Affleck.

Before his transformation into the title character, Affleck and Rooney Mara — her character is also unnamed — live together in a ranch house in the middle of somewhere. They argue a little about moving, but otherwise they pursue a low-key, harmonious, semibohemian existence. He writes songs and experiments with sound. She goes off to work in the morning. They whisper and look gorgeous and occasionally exchange tender, tentative smiles. In some ways these two (and the other humans who show up from time to time) are the real ghosts in the story — abstract, almost theoretical creatures floating in and out of Ghostie’s troubled consciousness.

The couple’s brief time together sets a hushed, poignant tone and establishes the dramatic and emotional limits within which “A Ghost Story” will operate. Not that there aren’t jolts and surprises. Just when you think you’ve cracked the film’s circumscribed logic, it opens up and goes wild in ways at once too wondrous and too preposterous to spoil. As a metaphysician, Lowery is not hung up on rules, but as a storyteller and an orchestrator of emotional effects, he appreciates the need for coherence.

Ghostie is not the only one of his kind in the movie. The dead (at least some of them) can communicate directly with one another and passive-aggressively with the living. They can travel in time but not in space, which explains the existence of haunted houses. They witness our suffering and fear but have only the most limited ability to intervene, even though they seem to inhabit, albeit invisibly, the same physical world we do. After a while, Ghostie’s sheet starts looking rumpled and dirty. It’s the only one he has, and he’s been wearing it for a very long time.

The movie may be built around a conceptual gimmick, but it feels less self-conscious than Lowery’s other recent films, the gloomy Southern crime story “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (also starring Affleck and Mara) and the sweet, borderline-twee remake of the ’70s children’s weepie “Pete’s Dragon.” Starting with a quote from Virginia Woolf, “A Ghost Story” wears its literary pedigree on its sleeve, yet it manages to feel fresh and inventive rather than stale or studied.

Movies these days are abuzz with all kinds of paranormal activity, most of it aimed at delivering easy, superficial terror. The scariest scene in “A Ghost Story” may be the most human, when a random guy at a party won’t stop talking about the meaningless of existence in an indifferent universe. Dude, we know! Shut up! Ghostie’s silence at that moment speaks volumes, and his inscrutable presence is a reminder that fright may be an unjust, irrational response to him and his kind.

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