David Lowery's film steers a middle course between the temptations of terror and romanticism and ends up being one of the saddest films I've seen in awhile. This is the film with the gimmick that its ghost (Casey Affleck) goes through the picture, after the character's death, wearing the iconic white sheet with eyeholes that western culture has identified with ghosts for who knows how long. The gimmick requires Affleck, an Oscar-winning performer, to rely on the most constrained pantomime to express anything, but it confers a degree of universality on his character's experience, and the reduction of his individuality probably has a point as well. The dead man is an aspiring musician who'd just agreed with his wife (Rooney Mara), after considerable stalling, to move out of their home. Killed in a car wreck outside the house, he "wakes up" in the hospital moments after his wife has viewed his body. Mute and invisible, he travels on foot to the house, and from that point he seems bound to the property. He watches his wife grieve by gorging herself to sickness on pie and has a brief poltergeist episode after seeing her drunkenly flirt with another man. It's clear, however, that she misses him greatly, for all the good that does either of them. Communication beyond moving objects seems impossible; our ghost is capable only of telepathic communication (rendered with subtitles) with another ghost who "lives" across the way. This other ghost's plight portends a bad fate for ours; it's waiting for someone to return, but can't remember who exactly.
Finally the widow moves out, but feels moved first to leave a note in a crack in a freshly-painted wall. Painting it over, she drives away behind the moving van and it's clear that our poor ghost will never see her again. There's no following her and witnessing the rest of her life; instead, he remains in the house as it changes hands a few times, mostly torpid but sometimes hauntingly angry, until it is finally demolished. Whether Lowery intended it or not, the wife's departure is an ingenious role reversal. Since we'll never see her again or hear of what became of her, the ghost may as well be the widowed and bereaved one, permanently cut off from the beloved as far as we can tell. There is something beyond, as we saw when a sort of doorway into "the light" opened for him in the hospital, but for any number of reasons he turned it down. Now, however, he wants to get at that note, not knowing whether it was addressed to him, the house, the future or whatever. And in a brilliant bit of timing, the moment he manages to scratch his way to it a wrecking ball hits the building and soon the house is gone.
The film grows more expansively fantastic from here. Our ghost remains on the property as it becomes the site of an office building while a great city encroaches on the once-rural community. The neighbor ghost finally gave up the ghost, so to speak, shortly after the demolition, but ours holds on for what must be decades more, wandering through the corridors until it ends up on the roof. The cityscape he sees is our signal of a great passage of time. In response, he jumps, and to be honest I'm not sure what he's trying to accomplish. Is he trying to destroy himself, or simply trying to escape his prison? In any event, he doesn't hit the sidewalk but plunges through history, landing nearly two centuries in the past as a pioneer family makes camp on the property. The daughter hums a tune resembling something the ghost wrote in life; did she inspire him from a distance, or is he possibly her reincarnation? In any event, she and her family are killed by Indians and from there history proceeds rapidly until the ghost sees himself and his wife moving into the house. We now see that he had haunted himself, having made the noises we'd heard wake the living man early in the picture. He reviews the post-mortem events, now a ghost of a ghost watching his sheeted self watch his wife until she once again departs. He knows now to get after that note promptly and finding it, he finds the closure that can end his earthly existence once and for all.
On the DVD, Lowery claims that he never knew what was in the note, having told Rooney Mara to write whatever she pleased, presumably in character. This suggests that the fact of the note rather than the content is what allows the ghost finally to let go of the property and break the time loop he seemed trapped in. Knowing this, each viewer can imagine the wife's message to your own satisfaction. It could be an ultimate disappointment like the feeling that led the other ghost to quit this sphere; it could be the ultimate farewell that he didn't get at the hospital; or it could simply have been an ultimate reaffirmation of his identity as something separate from the property that can freely depart from it. That's a good kind of ambiguity and appropriate to a movie addressing the mysteries of life's end. A Ghost Story's less-is-more approach proves very effective and helps it succeed on an empathetic level that transcends genre formulae. Some may find the sight of Affleck in a sheet hopelessly absurd or may be frustrated by the near-complete refusal of obvious acting -- Lowery actually could have kept a deleted scene of Affleck making coffee, as it establishes the stillness that characterizes the ghost -- but more, I hope, will see the film as testimony to the storytelling potential of the simplest image.