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Phantom Pains

The spirit of wounded masculinity haunts America in 'A Ghost Story.'

Illustration by Elenor Kopka

As the current avatar of American white male woe, Casey Affleck is underused in David Lowery’s new film, A Ghost Story. In last year’s Manchester by the Sea, Affleck was mopey, self-loathing, and seized with guilt, whenever he wasn’t punching a stranger at a bar after one too many bottles of Sam Adams Boston Lager. There are Trump voters in liberal Massachusetts—I’m related to someand though few bought tickets to Manchester by the Sea, it’s about them. The screenplay piled sorrow upon sorrow on Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler: dead brother, estranged wife, children dead in a fire sparked by his own coked-up negligence. In its profile of the exemplary self-destructive, working-class white guy circa 2016, the only box the movie left unchecked was a painkiller addiction. It could have been called Masshole Elegy.

Redemption wasn’t quite possible for Lee, but there was expiation for the actor. After I’m Still Here, the widely loathed (and scandal-plagued) prank documentary he directed about Joaquin Phoenix becoming a rapper, Affleck showed he’d cleaned up and gotten serious. The role of Lee, which won Affleck a Best Actor Oscar, consolidated his persona as the Sensitive Damaged Guy, a variation on his previous turns as the Sensitive Detective (Gone Baby Gone, Triple 9) and the Sensitive Outlaw (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)—all cousins of the Bostonian noble savage, the mythic figure propagated by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Good Will Hunting, with Casey as the rascal apprentice in the ensemble.

You can hear echoes of Affleck’s career in A Ghost Story. As in his 2013 prison-break tearjerker, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lowery pairs Affleck with Rooney Mara and then tears them apart. Early on, Affleck’s C fatally crashes his car just outside the ranch house he shares with Mara’s M. Just why he’d crash his car on this pleasantly lonely strip of bluegrass is a mystery, but the point of C’s death is that it’s pointless—shades of the house fire in Manchester by the Sea. And as in that film, Affleck’s character spends the rest of the movie moping around and lashing out. Only here he’s an actual ghost, not just a ghost of his former self.

At the hospital, M breaks down while viewing C’s corpse and runs out of the room in tears. We linger on the body under the white sheet. It rises. It walks. The sheet that covers it has acquired two black holes for eyes. It strolls the halls of the hospital unseen by the sick and the well, until it comes to a wall where a door of light appears. This must be the way to heaven. C’s ghost doesn’t pass through. Instead it walks out of the hospital and slowly advances across many a field back to the ranch house, which it will proceed to haunt.

C’s haunting mostly takes the form of standing around. Is that Affleck under the bedsheet, or a coat rack? It’s often impossible to say. Did Affleck use up his store of dolorous winces in Manchester by the Sea? In Ghost Story, he is an absent presence; the ghost might as well be saying “I’m still here.” As Lowery lingers on the black eyes of the bedsheet, they pack nearly as much pathos as Affleck on a good day, though perhaps not enough to win Affleck (if he’s under there) another Oscar. (Eddie Redmayne did, however, win Best Actor for a performance as Stephen Hawking that largely consisted of blinking.)

Is all this silent stillness spooky or silly? A little of both: The spookiness leans heavily on the score’s crashing organs and jarring strings, and some of the silliness isn’t unintentional. C stands at the window looking at the house next door. There, in the window, he sees another ghost, this one a little shorter and wearing a floral-print bedsheet. Subtitles show that they can speak to each other across the yard. The ghost next door says it’s waiting for someone but has forgotten who.

After the densely plotted Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lowery, who’s 36 years old, wrote and directed Pete’s Dragon for Disney, and A Ghost Story blends the latter’s magic with the former’s tragedy, mostly leaving out the action. Lowery edited the moody, metaphysical mystery Upstream Color in 2013, and this year he co-wrote the screenplay for Alexandre Moors’s adaptation of the Iraq War novel The Yellow Birds. His next project is a remake of Peter Pan. He veers with ease between the multiplex and the art house, mixing whimsy and melancholy—not always the happiest of bedfellows. The title of A Ghost Story is a statement of point of view: We can see the ghost, but we can’t see much the ghost doesn’t see, so we end up seeing a lot of the silent, often-empty house. A classic ghost story like The Turn of the Screw takes up the point of view of the spooked and tends to leave the reality of the ghost, and the sanity of the one seeing ghosts, an open question. Not so here.

Before C dies, we see C and M as comfortable rural bohemians, less twangy and less desperate than the Texans Affleck and Mara played in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Their house is cozy and tastefully decorated, though the exterior is peeling and could use a paint job. C is a musician, and M wants to move out of the house. It doesn’t seem that she wants to leave him, but the possibility isn’t closed off. Although the move is a point of disagreement, in the early scenes the pair do a lot of nuzzling and look as if they could go on nuzzling into their golden years. After C dies, his ghost lingers over M, gazing at her as she changes the sheets, rushes off to work, sleeps diagonal on their bed, lies on the floor, and listens to C’s music (actually Dark Rooms’s “I Get Overwhelmed”) on her headphones. She reaches out and we see she’s touching the hem of C’s bedsheet, but she doesn’t seem to realize it. He caresses her while she’s sleeping, but she doesn’t seem to feel it. What does it mean for a ghost to haunt someone who can’t tell she’s being haunted?

M’s grieving takes the form of extreme stress eating. She sits barefoot on the floor of the kitchen in the late afternoon with the lights off, eating a whole pie from the middle without the formality of slicing it up, like a semi-feral creature (she does use a fork). By the time she runs to the bathroom to puke, we’ve barely noticed that the ghost has been in the frame all along like a floor lamp. This sadness can only last so long, and soon comes the inevitable night when M returns home from a date with a new man and kisses him goodnight. The surprise is that when she finally moves out, having left what’s probably a love note painted into a crack in the doorframe—she must somehow believe in ghosts—the ghost doesn’t muster the energy to sneak into her car. Whose story is this? M’s or the ghost’s?

A mother (Sonia Acevedo) moves into the house with two children (Carlos Bermudez and Yasmina Gutierrez). They speak Spanish, and the lack of subtitles signals that the ghost can’t understand what the children are yelling as they play with their toys on what used to be his living room floor. Is this a metaphor for the diminished authority of the American white male amid demographic shifts? Even though the children are cute, it must be galling for a ghost to have strangers for roommates, and now the real haunting begins: The ghost picks up a glass of milk and it appears to the family to be levitating. The ghost ruins dinner by chucking shelves of plates against the wall. Finally, some traditional poltergeist stuff. The family is spooked and moves out. The place becomes the setting for middle-aged hipster debauchery, and one night there’s a party. One of the partygoers, played by Will Oldham—the alt-country star, who has rarely acted since his teenage turn as a coal miner–preacher in John Sayles’s Matewan—delivers a trite but charming speech about how all life ends in death and dust and not even most art will survive. The ghost makes the light bulbs go haywire. Hipsters shouldn’t be so strident in their materialism.

Soon the house is abandoned and demolished by a bulldozer—a surprise attack from the ghost’s point of view and, as the claw crashes through the ceiling unannounced, the film’s most thrilling scene. First, what seems to be an industrial park goes up on the lot, and in Lowery’s idiosyncratic telescoping of time, the high-rises get higher until this corner of what seems like Kentucky has become a megalopolis that looks a little like Shanghai and a little like Las Vegas. The ghost doesn’t like it, and throws himself from the roof of a tower.

By Lowery’s loopy metaphysics, this sends the ghost back to the time of European settlement of the American frontier. Among the many questions C’s time travel raises is: Why doesn’t the ghost protect the first settlers who arrive at his future home when they’re attacked by natives with arrows? Would he rather watch their corpses rot? Why don’t their spirits don tablecloths or wagon covers and keep him company? Apparently, the ghost’s powers of intervention in the realm of the living extend only to plate-smashing and bulb-tampering. Otherwise, after waiting for many years to pass, he might be able to prevent his own death. A Ghost Story isn’t coherent or profound, but it’s pretty and strange—sad in its quirky way, and blessedly short.