A Ghost Story – Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara haunt in a top film of 2017

Two terrific lead performances help make David Lowery’s daring and unconventional tale of love, loss and grief one of the cinema highlights of the year

US writer-director David Lowery’s new film is called A Ghost Story. The title is bluntly descriptive – this is indeed a story about a ghost – and is also a stark advertisement of the kind of thrills you might expect. Ghost stories are meant to be scary, right? Well, on this front the film disappoints. A Ghost Story is not especially scary. But then I don’t really think it’s meant to be, and on so many other levels this is a triumph: a moving, melancholy portrait of loss and love; a sumptuous study in atmosphere that lulls you into a hypnotic trance; a gently profound essay on time and its human limits.

We begin in a suburban house in Texas, the rented home of a young couple, known in the credits as C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara). The early scenes offer glimpses into their home life. Charged with tenderness and delicacy, the film here plays like a sort of poem to a very low-key but purely felt form of domestic bliss. At one point Lowery films the two lying in bed in a sleepy embrace, and holds the shot so long you begin to feel almost uncomfortable being party to such intimacy. But there are also tensions. C (played with mumbly charm by Affleck) is reluctant to move; M wants to and can’t understand her partner’s attachment to this ordinary house.

There’s no reason at all why a film star dressed up this way should invite anything other than ridicule. And yet the effect is uncanny and mournful

But then, in a plot turn depicted with a shocking matter of factness, C is killed in a car crash, after which he appears as a ghost. The title character of Lowery’s last film, the Disney movie Pete’s Dragon, was a lovingly fashioned, doubtless expensively rendered computer-generated creature. The ghost here is Affleck in a sheet, with two holes for eyes. It’s a low-fi Halloween outfit idea of the supernatural, and there’s no reason at all why a film star dressed up this way should invite anything other than ridicule. And yet the effect is uncanny and mournful: unseen by M, C returns to the house and stands there, a shrouded sentinel to his partner’s grief.

It’s a desperately moving situation. Lowery lets shots play out over minutes, keeping the camera fixed. It’s a high-wire stylistic strategy, one that he orchestrates with an exquisite touch. In a scene already much celebrated, he films M consume the better part of half an apple pie, having just returned from seeing C’s body in the morgue. In her now-empty house, she attacks the food in teary gulps, then rises to rush to the toilet to vomit. All this, Lowery observes without a cut. The attitude is poised between unblinking detachment and deep compassion, and I can’t think of many other moments in recent cinema that more vividly portray the visceral impact of sudden grief. It’s a terrific performance by Mara.

Affleck is incredible, too, managing to impart worlds of sadness through minimalist gestures from underneath a sheet. While the film remains largely rooted to the site of the house C shared with M, A Ghost Story’s chronology is a far more restless affair, a quantum leap through multiple time-frames that ghosts like C must endure as the price of their deathless state. I won’t reveal much more, other than to say that underpinning the film’s dizzying narrative logic is a wise and melancholy reflection on mortality.

A Ghost Story was reportedly made, for a small budget, without any publicity and away from the prying attention of any studios, and perhaps that accounts for the whispery, mysterious spell it casts, like a secret shared. In any event I hope it doesn’t stay a secret for much longer because this is one the best films of 2017.

A Ghost Story is in cinemas from August 11