Writer-director-editor David Lowery’s last two pictures were Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon … which says a lot for his eclecticism, further demonstrated by this subdued, odd, affecting indie-type art-genre hybrid, which has some crossover with posthumous romances like Ghost and Truly Madly Deeply but also goes in for some time-bending after the manner of invisible king Shane Carruth (Primer, Upstream Color), who is buried deep in the credits as ‘additional editor’. Reusing the stars of his debut and paid for by his high-profile Disney gig, it’s a deceptively simple film about enormous issues, and pulls off something remarkable in its use of a literal white sheet spook as a central figure – there’s just black cloth behind the eyeholes, and the haint doesn’t adopt exaggerated poses, yet we infer a wide range of emotions from its presence.
C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) live reasonably happily in a single-storey wood house, and have an ostensibly good if not idealised relationship, though there’s a hint that a piano in the house is slightly haunted. When C is killed in a tactfully-staged car accident, he is covered with a shroud in the morgue and sits up, the cartoon image of a ghost as referenced by MR James’s ‘face of crumpled linen’ and Michael Myers in Halloween, to return to his home, unseen by M, but eventually able to connect with the physical world in minor poltergeist fashion, seemingly spending years trying to scrape away paint from a door-jamb with cloth-covered fingers in order to extricate a note slipped there by his widow. He sees another ghost, in a paisley sheet, standing in the window of a house opposite, and they talk in subtitles – but the longer-standing spectre is even vaguer about his or her purpose and abilities, and eventually moves on, leaving the sheet to collapse. For a long second act, the film concentrates on the lovers, with the ghost C standing mute as M assuages her equally mute grief in a lengthy single-shot scoff of a pie, but then she tentatively moves on by dating another man, prompting the ghost to strain to touch the world. Then, the tone changes as M moves out and a succession of others pass through the house – including some mystically-inclined folks and a party where an ‘oversharing man’ (John Marr) delivers a pointed if rambling cosmic monologue – and we get a sense of time itself fragmenting as the ghost still stands while the house is ploughed under by bulldozers to be replaced not just by a high-rise glass-and-steel office but have its entire semi-rural neighbourhood turned into a city district that looks like a manga Hong Kong … and seems to stand even as time cycles around again to the pioneers staking out the virgin land (the film was shot in Texas) for a homestead, only to be shot full of arrows by Indians (the film shows us the dead, but – as with the inciting car crash – not the dying).
At length (though this is very tight 92 minutes seems to speed by, even in that pie scene some will make fun of), the ghost returns to his point of origin and we see the living C and M from its perspective, literally filling in some blanks left earlier and complicating our understanding of their situation without going the full Rashomon or reading the secret message that apparently decodes things for the ghost. She is much less keen on the house than he is and before death he is beginning to develop an attachment to the place (and that piano – he’s a musician) which perhaps explains why he linger afterwards, and the picture of the Quaker holding the box of oats with the picture of the Quaker etc/infinity of mirrors cycle persists as the ghost stays on past the point of C’s death to watch unobserved as his earlier self haunts the place – perhaps eventually prompting a realisation that gets him off the merry-go-round or a fading-away that presages non-existence as an option. Its fairly unusual look – academy ratio, with rounded corners, like old home movies or faded memories – and deliberately low-key performances invite audiences to project their own feelings or ideas on the white sheet which is also a screen, but that’s not really a cop-out. It’s a film that asks you to think about its themes but also the circumstances of its creation – is Affleck really under that sheet all the time? – and the rules of its cosmos.