Death comes calling on the ordinary life of M (Rooney Mara: The Discovery) and C (Casey Affleck: Manchester by the Sea). C dies in a car wreck, leaving M alone in the world.
Only she isn’t alone.
C has followed M home. Covered now in an autopsy sheet, C is witness to M’s mourning, grief and eventual acceptance. Clearly, he is seeking closure with his wife. Yet when M moves, C stays behind.
Now alone in the house, C passes the time chatting with the ghost next door, who has been at it so long its human name is forgotten. As he waits, other people move into the house. C sometimes tries to interact with the families, other times ignores them. Decades sail by.
Is C doomed to haunt a shell of a home until he can remember nothing of his own existence?
Borrowing from director Terrence Malick, writer/director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) creates spectacular visuals and an obscure, metaphoric story in which concept dominates performance and plot. Centering a movie on a man under a sheet is a bold cinematic choice.
C is basically a silent observer, a witness to the passage of time and the lives of others. In spite of the title, this is not a typical ghost story. The dread that builds here is existential, as C learns how inconsequential his life was. Expansive vistas demonstrate the miniscule place humanity holds in the vastness of the universe.
Lowery is committed to languid pace and tone, and his Ghost Story takes a while to get going, with long stretches of silence and scenes that seemingly go on forever. For the first 20 minutes, you sit in a soundless theater, watching Mara gorge on a pie or Affleck stare sullenly. Expect awkward laughter from some audience members and perhaps a few glances at your watch.
But the film eventually finds its feet, and if you’re willing to put in some mental effort, you’ll be rewarded. A Ghost Story reflects on our place in the universe, our need to be remembered and the billion joys and tragedies that unfold over the years in the same space. Don’t expect anything simple, including answers.
Good Drama • R • 92 mins.