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A Ghost Story Review

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

A Ghost Story poster

David Lowery's film "A Ghost Story" is best seen a second time, though obeying the customary rules of time and cinema, you'll have the mysterious pleasure of seeing it a first time to get there. It's not the usual haunting, though writer-director Lowery's unusually thoughtful picture concerns a dead man's ghost, his widow's grief and what it means to say goodbye to a person, and the sweet, bitter fact of life's deadline.

Watching "A Ghost Story" at Sundance earlier this year, and then again the other day, I thought about something the composer David Raksin once said: "None of my music should ever be played for the first time, since it only confuses people." Lowery's fifth feature, following "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" (2013) and the peculiarly worthwhile 2016 "Pete's Dragon" remake, is simple and trackable enough in its narrative. But Lowery doesn't concern himself with what we're used to seeing in most movie versions of an afterlife. You experience "A Ghost Story" first for what it isn't, and a second time for what it is.

It begins with a Virginia Woolf quotation ("Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting") promising a subtle spiritual intimation. A man, played by Casey Affleck, and a woman, Rooney Mara, live in a one-story house. They're moving. "We can probably find a better one," the musician husband says, referring to the modest piano in the living room, the one they're leaving behind.

At the top of the movie, the wife remembers her childhood, when she moved around a lot, and she used to "write these notes. And I'd fold them up really small, and hide them in different places. So if I ever wanted to go back, there'd be a piece of me there."

The house, it seems, is haunted by the occasional bump in the night, and clunk on the soundtrack. Then, not long into "A Ghost Story," the husband dies in a car accident. His stunned widow identifies the body in the hospital, lifting the sheet on the slab and confirming it's him. She leaves. The body is alone. Then, in a boldly straightforward stroke of genius, Lowery has the husband come back for more: Under that same sheet, now with two eyeholes cut out of it, he wanders out of the hospital, unseen to living humans, and returns home to see how his wife is doing.

I don't want to give too much more away, not because there's a lot of sudden or momentous contrivances in the screenplay to spoil but because "A Ghost Story" sustains a mood of rapt expectation better than just about anything I've seen this year. Plenty of novels, and plays, and movies, have dealt with this narrative setup, from blockbuster schlock ("Ghost," with the sexy pottery interlude) to methodical seriocomedy ("Truly, Madly, Deeply"). This film squanders nothing and rushes very little. In one five-minute sequence Mara's character consumes a neighbor's fruit pie in a single, emotional gorge. She never sees the dead man in the sheet, but she does catch glimmers of light against the wall now and then.

Lowery edited "A Ghost Story" in addition to writing and directing. He allows the tone to vary just as he tailors the rhythm of a sequence, and its transition into the next shot, to the needs of the moment. The ghost here travels far and widely in the temporal sense. The music by Daniel Hart, the cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo -- every detail feeds into a waking dream. A few things don't work, or work too hard at establishing something Lowery establishes elsewhere without words; in one scene, the house, now a rental unit inhabited by a party full of dancing and boozy philosophy, becomes the setting for Will Oldham's self-conscious monologue about the fragility and futility of existence. It's a bit much, in a movie that is otherwise just right.

Mara and Affleck starred in Lowery's Texas crime story "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," and their moody rapport is enough to establish what "A Ghost Story" needs at the start, before Lowery takes a jump into the mundanely fantastic. Twice in the movie, a character caught between life on Earth and whatever lies beyond takes off for good, and the way it's visualized is splendid, swift, over before you know it. The movie plays with time the way Thornton Wilder's early plays "The Long Christmas Dinner" and "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden" did, gracefully and honestly, with a full appreciation of what you leave behind. And of whatever you do, as the guy at the party says, "make sure you're still around after you're gone."

MPAA rating: R (for brief language and a disturbing image).

Running time: 1:32

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