A Ghost Story flirts with the silly, but finds the sublime. Written and directed by David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon), the movie is exactly what its title suggests: the tale of a disembodied spirit haunting a nondescript ranch in rural Texas. The silly, for some, might be the fact that this ghost is depicted as stereotypically as possible: a white sheet, with two holes for eyes. The sublime, for me, is the manner in which the film’s elemental approach evokes a loneliness so palpable that it almost becomes too much to bear.
The movie’s power lies in its stillness: the long patient takes, the dedication to a single place, the way the ghost stands next to a former loved one and hardly moves. It’s not scary, largely because we know the identity of the ghost (an identity I won’t reveal here). This isn’t a movie about our fear of a spirit, but rather the spirit’s aching sense of loss. It inverts most ghost stories by giving us a specter who is haunted by the living.
Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo shoot in a boxy aspect ratio with Instagram-rounded corners. The choice emphasizes both the trapped nature of the ghost and the snapshot element of its experience, especially as the years pass and new residents move into the home. To be this ghost is to float through the photo albums of countless lives. Daniel Hart’s string-heavy score provides a through-line, as does judicious use of Dark Rooms’ “I Get Overwhelmed.” No matter how many years pass, the emotional tenor—sad, lost, lonely—remains the same.
To be this ghost is to float through the photo albums of countless lives.
This is especially true of the moment when the title ghost looks out the window of the ranch to see another ghost in the house next door. “I’m waiting for someone,” the new ghost communicates (we see the words as subtitles). “Who?” the first ghost asks. “I don’t remember,” the second responds. Two ghosts “talking” like metaphysical neighbors? Again, some might laugh, but at this point the movie’s sorrow settled into my chest with an awful weight. The filmmakers might have felt similarly. A Ghost Story eventually, somewhat confusingly, drifts its way toward a more hopeful conclusion, one that I regretted even as I welcomed the relief it offered. Giving a ghost story a happy ending might have been one inversion too far.