After drawing critical acclaim for his slow-burn indie drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and professional cred with Disney’s big-budget, live-action Pete’s Dragon, editor turned writer/director David Lowery returns to intimate settings with the doleful indie drama A Ghost Story. Since its Sundance debut in January, the film has been picking up praise for its atmospheric tale of romance and regret. I’d heard great things about this movie from my colleagues, but wondered if I could shake my distaste for its lead, Casey Affleck, enough to be able to submerge into the movie’s moody journey. The short answer is no. But really, Lowery’s movie makes that impossible.
In case you’re unaware, Affleck’s reputation took a hit last year. While he was being touted as an Oscar frontrunner for his heart-wrenching role in the lauded drama Manchester by the Sea, allegations surfaced from 2010, when he was accused of sexually harassing a pair of women who worked on the set of his controversial mockumentary I’m Still Here. One woman claimed Affleck had snuck into her bed while she was sleeping. Another alleged he got violent when she rejected his advances, and tried to leave his room.
Affleck has denied the allegations. The women’s lawsuits were settled out of court. Perhaps both parties want to put it all behind them, but the matter lingers as unresolved in the court of public opinion. We don’t know what happened, and likely never will. Still, I tried to put all of this out of my mind as I watched A Ghost Story. I tried to sink into its story. I hoped it might help that Affleck spends most of his screen time under a bed sheet that completely covers his face and body. But context matters, and oh boy, this context.
Lowery reunites his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stars, Affleck and Rooney Mara, tasking them once more to play a pair of lovers. Their characters’ names are never spoken; other specifics of their lives are ambiguous to non-existent. We know they live together in a modest one-story house. They like music, and they’re on the brink of an argument. Their conversations are vague. But as they casually tangle into each other on couches and beds, you see their comfort in each other’s arms, and feel the intimacy in their casual kisses. But something is off in this house. There are weird noises, and lights glitter on walls without apparent source. Both are signs of artful foreboding. The couple’s modest contentment is shattered when he dies abruptly.
This happens maybe five minutes into the movie. After she identifies his body, and leaves it behind in the morgue, it rises, wearings its hospital sheet like a child’s Halloween costume of a ghost, complete with two black cut-outs to peer through. The ghost follows her home. And watches helpless and unnoticed as her life proceeds without him. It happens in flashes. And before long, she’s gone. And he is left to watch another family move in and live in their once happy-enough home. He is left there to linger.
A Ghost Story is a curious meditation on love and loss. And Lowery’s absurd imagery of the towering ghost— with its impossibly long train of white fabric and flat black eyes—is at once silly and melancholic. But because I know it’s Affleck under there, the ghost’s journey becomes menacing in a meta way I don’t think Lowery intends. I mean, Mara is walking around her home, thinking she’s alone, and sneaking around is a man (Affleck) who feels he is entitled to her privacy, her space, and even her body. When she brings home a new lover, the ghost reacts with poltergeist outbursts of flickering lights and fitfully flung objects. Later, when he follows another woman, who is oblivious to his presence, into her bedroom, I cringed and wondered how Lowery could include such a scene and hope audiences wouldn’t think back on the Affleck allegations. Does he think they don’t know? Won’t care? Or that a simple white sheet will be enough to cover up the scandal’s legacy?
Though it possesses a mournful beauty, A Ghost Story is sullied by Affleck’s presence. He might be a hell of an actor, but this is not the place for him. For one, the sheet makes his performance 80% standing still and silent while life whirls around him. For another, his personal baggage might well weigh onto the minds of audience members who can’t shake the disturbing allegations against him. Watching Affleck creep on unsuspecting women and violently lash out when they displease him, how can I be expected to ignore the actor’s private scandals when they seem to be played out on screen with sympathy towards him? There’s suspension of disbelief, sure. But Lowery—whether he intends to or not—is asking for something more, and unnerving.
We’re meant to want to follow this ghost’s journey of grieving not only his own death, but also the death of his relationship. However, haunted by the skeletons in Affleck’s closet, I couldn’t scare up much empathy for his ghost.