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'A Ghost Story' is small on story, big on meaning

Spoiler-free review: While slow and sometimes tedious, "A Ghost Story" hits deep with a poetic, subtle contemplation of what it means to leave a mark.

"A Ghost Story" is weird. So weird it lingers with you like the "Ghost" of the second film to feature Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck under David Lowery's direction. Sparse on dialogue, people and settings, it delivers big ideas that plant you in your seat. The film takes you on a cosmic ride that will have you contemplating life in all its dull and exciting majesty.

Sundance Institute/Andrew Droz Palermo

The movie follows Rooney Mara's M as she grieves the loss of her love, Affleck's C, a struggling musician who dies suddenly in a car crash. Or, rather, it follows C's ghost following M.

C haunts the couple's house, striking an at times frightening and imposing figure draped in a sheet from the morgue. Oscar winner Affleck acts as well as an actor can under a sheet, but the costume designers deserve credit for shaping the eye holes to reflect the ghost's emotions, slanting them one way to reflect worry, for example, or turning them another to indicate anger.

Lowery's last writing and directing project, "Pete's Dragon," was a Disney live-action film that couldn't be further from "A Ghost Story" in storytelling and budget. The self-financed "A Ghost Story" takes Lowery back to the indie roots of his breakthrough "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" and it's bold in its direction and minimalism.

In one standout moment, M stands over C's body in the morgue, staring in shock and grief for several minutes, then leaves. At that point, the most unlikely event occurs: C's ghost catapults up, alive. This isn't a horror story, not in the "The Conjuring" sense. Yet these sudden action beats punctuating long moments of silence and stillness are about as jump-scary as you can get.

Depression and loneliness prove frightening in their own way. After C's death, M travels through the house on her own, listening to music and flashing back to when C wrote it. She lies on his side of the bed, broken. These scenes of isolation are long, and they're as effective as physical demons.

Shadowing the darkness are the moments when C and M do couple-in-love. "A Ghost Story" transitions seamlessly through the light and the dark, travelling by changing weather in glorious slow motion or C's ghost turning corners of the house and entering rooms set in the past or the future.

The swelling music cuts to long scenes with little action, observed through a Polaroid-like lingering lens that evokes the ghost's closed-off eyeholes. That's where "A Ghost Story" falls short: when it places strain on your attention span. The camera holds on M's bare back as she watches C, who's darting around the background, but you don't see what he's doing. It lets those scenes sit just a little too long as your back starts to tighten and you shift in your seat. Investing in "A Ghost Story" is rewarding, but it can be a long slog to attain the rewards at the end.

a-ghost-story-sundance

Sundance Institute/Andrew Droz Palermo

Mara stands out as the main human character conveying the complex emotions of losing a loved one. Her journey through grief peels back until the ghost becomes the focus, completing its own journey that circles to a satisfying and trippy conclusion. The weirdest moments surge toward the climax, and that's where "A Ghost Story" finds its greatest strength. The more supernatural the movie gets, the better.

The film picks you apart, until just like the ghost, you float back to observe and contemplate the world. This is filmmaking at its carefully crafted best, seeping weighty ideas into every detail. Fortunately, the small holes aren't enough to stop this symphony of parts from creating one big, memorable experience.

"A Ghost Story" opens July 7 in the US, July 27 in Australia and August 11 in the UK.

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