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July 16, 2017

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‘A Ghost Story’ is an unsatisfying fable

A FATAL, off-screen car crash interrupts the picturesque, suburban lives of a young married couple in David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” marooning the deceased husband musician (Casey Affleck) in a kind of purgatory as a watchful, mostly benign ghost.

The movie is, inevitably, “the one where Casey Affleck spends most of the movie with a bedsheet over his head.” With two holes for eyes, he resembles a last-minute Halloween costume. Such a simple, sheeted specter — as Hollywood ghosts go — is tantamount to a radical deviation from prevailing orthodoxy. There’s no CGI. Nobody gets slimed.

No, the most audacious display of cinematic extreme in “A Ghost Story” is a scene where the ghost watches his widowed wife (Rooney Mara), in a fit of grief and hunger, eat pie.

For five minutes.

“A Ghost Story” may sound like a punchline. Such is the curse of movies with covered-up movie stars and marathon pie-eating scenes. But it’s an exceedingly earnest, meditative movie about big ideas — the nature of time, life’s impermanence — that goes well beyond the intentionally dime-store costume design. It’s an often transfixing, frequently unsatisfying fable that blends the fantastical with the banal in a way that the naturalistic/surrealistic Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weeresethakul might if someone were to hand him a bedsheet.

Lowery shot the film secretly in between making Disney movies: after directing the rebooted “Pete’s Dragon” and before developing a new “Peter Pan.” It was designed like an audacious indie experiment, made with little expectation of triumph, that reteamed the stars (Affleck, Mara) of Lowery’s lyrical outlaw romance “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” And “A Ghost Story,” with fragmented scenes and leaps through time, does have the electric feel of something made off the radar and without a net.

The question at the center of “A Ghost Story” is: What endures? And if nothing does, what’s it all for?

“A Ghost Story” is what it says it is, and it may well haunt you. It won’t scare you; it doesn’t even say “boo.” But glowing light and ghostly soulfulness linger on like a quiet, scratching presence that won’t leave you.


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