"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."
That's H.P. Lovecraft, inventor of the modern horror story, who had a debilitating preoccupation with the essential cosmic terror of existence in an unknowable universe. "We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far."
Director David Lowery explores similar themes in A Ghost Story, an odd, ominous film starring Casey Affleck as a ghost damned to spend eternity in the place where he died. In what seems like an art school gimmick, the ghost is presented Halloween costume-style, as a bed sheet with holes cut out for the eyes. Stick with it, though. Lowery gradually transforms his central image into something powerfully resonant.
The film's first half-hour introduces characters known only as C (Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), a bohemian couple living in a suburban house in Anytown, U.S.A. When Affleck dies, suddenly and accidentally, he finds himself back in his home, under that sheet. He can see her but she can't see him.
M grieves and then eventually moves on, leaving C's ghost rooted in place but untethered in time. He flashes back to see pioneers first settling the land. He flashes forward to an unsettling future. He spends one unhappy interlude haunting a hipster house party where some philosophy-major doofus holds forth: "Everything you've ever strived for, it'll all go. Everything in this dimension will be pulled apart."
Here, Lowery is winking a bit at his own dark anxieties, and that's where the sheet-covered ghost comes in. Because, really, we don't know what comes after death. It might be the bed sheet routine—who can say? A child's conception of the afterlife is as empirically valid as any other.
Evidently, a governing principle of the human condition is that we are not allowed to know, existentially speaking, what the hell is going on. How did we get here? What comes next? Science tells us that we're just a pile of lucky organic molecules that somehow developed consciousness. But that can't be right, can it?
These are the questions that haunt A Ghost Story, which isn't a ghost story at all—not in any traditional sense. It's a darkly lyrical meditation on life and death, space and time, filmed in a square aspect ratio with rounded edges, like a decaying antique photo. Lovecraft would have approved.