A Ghost Story begins as a small film about loss. Then it expands and becomes something else, a film about the vastness of time in relation to the smallness of human existence. In this sense, it shares a structural and thematic framework with Terrence Malick's 2011 film The Tree of Life, which uses the death of a loved one as a framing device to tell a story of family and the nature of life itself.

Both films are driven by a desire to understand our place in the universe, and each adopts a stance of humility at the thought that we are microscopic threads in a web of almost inconceivable size and complexity. The main difference between the two is one of tone. Malick, as always, is curious and awestruck, approaching his subject from a place of spiritual wonder. He is not frightened so much as amazed at how much feeling and sensation the universe must hold. David Lowery, the writer and director of A Ghost Story, seems to be consumed by an existential terror. His tone drifts toward fear and resignation, a solemn acknowledgment of how one's history dissolves over time.


These differences in tone mean the films diverge in style and content. The Tree of Life achieves a beautiful fluidity; the conversation between man, nature, and history is constant. It is a sensory experience more than an intellectual one. A Ghost Story begins on a similar track, but it eventually forgoes the sensual concerns of cinema for the abstractions of philosophy.

At the beginning, minor details of expression and movement tell the story, and it is exquisite. The film's early scenes center on a couple, known only as C and M in the credits (and played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, respectively), who appear to have a stable and loving relationship. Theirs is not an airbrushed, idealized romance (there is tension between them about moving from their home), but the roots of their affection are strong and clear. Early on, C dies in a car accident and becomes a ghost, returning to his home to watch his lover mourn and move on as new tenants take her place, all while experiencing loss on a scale which is incomprehensible to a human being. He loses agency, identity, love, watches his history fade and, ultimately, be destroyed. The film's vision of the afterlife is an eternal nightmare in which we see every trace of our human selves disappear.

All this while using one of the silliest cinematic ideas I can remember. When I say C becomes a ghost, I mean so literally. After his death, he rises from a mortician's table, sheet intact and draped over him like Charlie Brown's Halloween costume--right down to the misaligned eye holes. It is a miracle this never seems as ridiculous as it sounds, and this has mostly to do with the fact that the film's first half is exceptionally rich in cinematic detail, in light, shadow, movement, stillness, gesture, expression, sound. Lowery's framings possess the fine, sculptural detail of a Caravaggio painting or an Irving Penn photograph. He finds the texture in every visual element--a rumpled bedsheet, a bead of paint. This is what one means by a "singular" perspective: It is, literally, a new way of seeing.

But the film's great achievement is its tension between motion and stillness. When a character moves, it matters. Each gesture has weight, feeling, texture. An action as small as jabbing a fork into a pie speaks volumes and carries implications far beyond the action itself. This is the essence of non-verbal storytelling: character psychology explained through action and reaction. At its best, the film becomes a sort of minimalist ballet. You are rapt to the slightest twitch, to the most mundane incidents of human motion.

This may all sound stultifying and pretentious, but it is precisely because these aesthetic decisions are rooted in emotion and character that they are not. The anchor, in the film's first half, is Rooney Mara, who possesses both the mysterious charisma of a classical Hollywood star and a modern talent to affect a kind of naturalism, to make her movements and expressions feel like a matter of emotion and instinct rather than performance. She doesn't need much time to make an impact; she affects you immediately. Here, she gives a masterful performance of subtle expression, of controlling one's face and body to the smallest detail. She extracts pathos from simple actions--walking, standing, eating--a beautiful, devastating example of showing rather than telling, and a perfect marriage of camera and performance.

The problems begin when Mara leaves. The film loses something--that rare alignment of aesthetics, performance, theme, and story--and begins to unravel. It attempts to explain rather than feel, moving from the specific, the emotional, the personal, toward a clinical philosophy about time and impermanence, made literal by a long monologue from a character who mistakes philosophical awareness for invention, prattling on as if he were the first person to consider how the world functions beyond himself. The implications are profound, but the idea is not.

This monologue comes at a party thrown by new tenants of C and M's home and echoes the film's disposition in its second half. As its thematic concerns expand, it loses a specificity and groundedness. C moves forward, backwards, and forward again in a temporal loop and learns, the more you attempt to take in, the more diluted you become. The film should have heeded his lesson.