The unnamed protagonist of A Ghost Story looks like a melancholic cartoon character: a figure in a white sheet that extends past his feet, with two miserable eye-holes in lieu of a face. A Halloween-ish creature turned into an avatar of grief and loss, he’s played by Casey Affleck, who would be a lock to win the Oscar for Best Wordless Shuffling if such a category existed. For the 92-minute running time of David Lowery’s spellbinding movie, this spirit doesn’t do much except watch balefully as life rolls on without him.
This simplicity is at the core of what Lowery has tapped into so hauntingly—that death, for all its unknowability, is frighteningly mundane. We first meet the ghost, C, as a struggling musician, living in a rustic suburban house with his wife M (Rooney Mara). The details of their life are largely kept remote, but they have typical moments of tension and tenderness before their relationship is cut short by a car accident. C dies, but soon enough, he rises from his slab in the morgue, clad in that floor-length white sheet, and is immediately drawn back to his home, his wife, and his lost way of life.
The less you know about A Ghost Story going into the theater, the better, but this is also a movie that’s nigh-impossible to spoil, since it barely has a plot at all. In the hands of a different director, it could come off like a formal exercise, an experiment in telling a story with as little dialogue and narrative arc as possible. Most of A Ghost Story’s action, after all, is a depressing kind of voyeurism—C, standing off to the side in his sheet, watching his wife wrestle with grief and try to move on with her life. He then “haunts” the new families that move into their quaint home, an emotional ground zero that he’s inextricably bound to.