You might call it a gimmick, if you go into the theater in an unforgiving mood. Or you might call it a stroke of inspiration.
David Lowery, the writer-director of A Ghost Story, has chosen to represent his title character by a guy covered in a white sheet, Halloween style. Two elliptical holes, with nothing but emptiness behind them, occupy the place where the eyes should be. Sometimes the sheet slips a little, so the dark holes look like they’re drooping, and sometimes the guy beneath the drapery slowly turns his head to stare at something, which makes the fabric gather prettily in helical folds. That’s about all the expression you get from this movie’s central presence, who mostly stands around in silence.
Lowery inserts this masquerade, as bland as it is childish, into the most mundane of settings—a one-story house, designed with no social ambitions and plopped down in the grass and weeds of a present-day Texas city—so the effect never comes close to spookiness. Nor is it meant to: Lowery prefers for A Ghost Story to be wry, wistful, affecting, and odd with the kind of strangeness that doesn’t wear off. He succeeds so well that the wonder he elicits—about love, grief, memory, and time—eventually needs to make room for the mystery of how he’s pulled off the trick.
What makes you empathize with a ridiculous point-of-view character who does very little and can’t show emotion? Granted, the ghost becomes demonstrative on one occasion, when he smashes crockery, and you can guess something about his inner life when the electric lamps near him suddenly flicker and buzz. But even at these moments, you remain at a considerable remove from the character, compared with the immediacy you’d get if you saw an actor’s face and body and heard his voice. Besides, the anger that you intuit in these scattered episodes is exceptional. The emotions that usually seem to emanate from this watchful soul—longing, curiosity, a melancholy stubbornness—are in a much subtler range, and yet you read them from a near blank.
I suppose you feel so much for him because you’re a ghost, too. Sitting passively before the screen in the theater’s darkness, you watch the comings and goings of people who can’t see you, can’t be touched by you, can’t hear your voice. You’re as good as dead to them, and so you witness A Ghost Story as if through the sheet-man’s empty holes.