How you feel about “A Ghost Story” will probably come down to how you feel about the pie scene.
Rooney Mara, playing a young woman whom the credits call “M,” has just lost her husband, “C” (Casey Affleck), in a car accident; she returns home from identifying his body at the morgue to find a pie left by a sympathetic friend. Standing at the kitchen counter in a daze, she pulls at a bit of crust, trying a taste, then having a bite, then another, then slumping to the floor with her back against the cabinets, digging in her fingers in earnest, eating the whole damned pie in a slow-burning frenzy. The shot goes on for maybe three minutes and it feels like hours; either you’ll march out to the lobby to ask for your money back or you’ll understand that this may be what awakening to grief looks like when it’s just you and a condolence pastry.
In any event, “A Ghost Story” isn’t about her but about the husband, who’s standing silently and spectrally off in a corner. How do we know he’s a ghost? Because he’s wearing a sheet with eyeholes cut out of it, like something out of a “Peanuts” Halloween strip. I think this is writer-director David Lowery’s attempt to end-run the whole question of how to depict the afterlife, by going for the most trite, generic image possible. You may hiccup briefly and proceed with what the movie’s trying to do, or you may throw in the winding sheet and call it a night.
I bought in; many have, and you will, too, if you can adjust to the pace of “A Ghost Story,” which starts out funereal and comes to seem holy by the final scenes. There have been plenty of movies that address what happens to us after we die, and Lowery initially appears to be working up an indie version of the old Patrick Swayze-Demi Moore weeper, “Ghost,” or a cooler variant on “Truly Madly Deeply” (both 1990), with its heartbreaking Alan Rickman performance. (That’s a recommendation, by the way.)
But “A Ghost Story” keeps expanding metaphysically even as it pares away details; it becomes simpler, more elemental, and more emotionally transparent as it goes. It actually helps that we know little about the couple other than their small discontents and larger affection; they, and especially the husband, become our stand-ins. Lowery and his cinematographer, Andrew Droz Palermo, use natural light and often keep the characters in separate focal planes, as if they — or we — were already ghosts in each other’s lives.
The film plays games with time, too, sometimes leaping ahead days, months, years, sometimes curling back for a second look, a second chance, even as our ghost finds himself rooted to his spot no matter who’s living in the house or even whether there’s a house there at all. (The film’s parameters, from the pioneers to the age of skyscrapers, are such that one wonders if Lowery has read “Here,” the 2016 graphic novel that shows one place on Earth through several millennia.)
Affleck gives a performance that is literally invisible for the most part — it could be anyone under that sheet — but the flashbacks to his character’s living self are subtly three-dimensional. He’s loving, selfish, a bit of a jerk, a bit of a human. Is that why he’s hanging around? To figure out what he got wrong the first time? His wife has a habit of hiding slips of paper with messages on them in the cracks and walls of her homes, and the sight of the ghostly visitor scratching at a door jamb over the years, like a dog asking to be let back in, becomes a powerful image that pays off so perfectly your hair may stand on end.
Elsewhere, “A Ghost Story” flirts with coyness. Every time our ghost sees another spectre in the house across the way, the two communicating with silent subtitles, it feels like a literary conceit. Lowery approaches filmmaking, it seems, as a series of risks. His breakthrough, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013), also with Affleck and Mara, was such a precise evocation of the early ’70s Robert Altman/Terence Malick school of filmmaking that it courted perversity, like a gorgeous Xerox. (I missed his stab at the mainstream, last year’s critically praised Disney remake “Pete’s Dragon,” but plan to rectify that mistake soon.)
In his new movie, Lowery is still plenty perverse, lowering the narrative stakes while embracing the most fundamental questions of all: Why are we here? What do we see, what do we miss, who do we love, what should we regret? “None of it lasts,” insists a garrulous partygoer (Will Oldham) in one scene, but does giving in to that idea represent acceptance or defeat, naivete or grace?
You may find the questions preposterous, at least as expressed with such finicky, painstaking craft. Or you may come out of “A Ghost Story” haunting your own life for answers.
A GHOST STORY
Written and directed by David Lowery. Starring Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 93 minutes. R (brief language and a disturbing image).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.