David Lowery’s A Ghost Story packs so much into its spare stillness that the mind reels, from its deceptively simple and quiet plot sprout great, twisted vines of thought both linear and abstract. It’s a film that will infuriate as many watchers as it entrances, maybe more. It is a spectacle for the mind, it is a slow-burn meditation on life, death, life-after-death, loneliness, longing, belonging, hanging on, letting go and the enormity of existence. It’s a movie that left me off-balance and craving quiet contemplation. It’s a movie I wonder if I’ll ever recover from.
At surface level A Ghost Story tells of a couple – never referred to by first or last name throughout the entire movie but listed in the credits as “C” and “M” (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara respectively) – with but a single disagreement blighting their otherwise contented lives together: she wishes to move from their single storey house to a city apartment; he feels attached to the property in a way he can neither understand nor explain. When C is killed in a car crash his spirit, now shrouded in his mortuary sheet, returns to the house and the bereft M where he can only watch his beloved mourn, adjust to her loss and, eventually, move on. C remains at the house, sees a new family move in, sees it fall into ruin, sees it demolished and sees a giant office building built in its place. Ultimately, C makes a decision that – like Kurt Vonnegut’s hero of Slaughterhouse 5, Billy Pilgrim – causes him to become unstuck in time, travelling back to find a family of pioneers stake the boundaries of his former home.
Don’t be fooled into thinking A Ghost Story travels a familiar path, some of its notes may strike a similar harmony with movies like Ghost or Poltergeist but it is more tonally connected to films like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour (on which David Lowery worked as editor) or the works of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (especially Cemetery Splendour and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives). Audiences thinking they are in for a hare ’em-scare ’em thrill ride or trite supernatural romance are likely to come away deeply disappointed, A Ghost Story almost demands intellectual engagement and philosophical dissemination in its singularly original attempt to understand the meaning of life.
Filmed in 1:33:1 “Academy” aspect ratio (meaning the frame is virtually square) but with the corners rounded off, A Ghost Story is given a feel of an old 16mm home movie while, at the same time, the limitations of the picture mirrors C’s feelings of claustrophobia and his inability to inhabit the wider picture that exists elsewhere.
The viewer becomes most aware of the distortion of time when, like in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, that dimension folds back in on itself but there are other moments in the film when time and memory blur into one. For instance one sequence cuts between M listening to some of C’s music at his request and the ghost watching as she lies on the stripped-wood floor, her earbuds full of the same song (whilst she lays there, her outstretched hand lightly brushes C’s sheet as though she is able to connect through memory and such transient mediums as sound). This is just one of the moments where A Ghost Story reveals its interest in Ontology (the branch of metaphysical philosophy concerned with the nature of being) or, more precisely, Hauntology (Jacques Derrida’s hypothesis of ontological disjunction, most fittingly described – in the film’s case – by Colin Davis as “…the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive”). Are you starting to understand why I called the film “deceptively simple” yet?
The idea of the ghost being covered by a sheet with two, slightly askew, black holes for eyes is one of the film’s simplest ideas (whether this was a choice due to budget and whether that is really Affleck under it matter not) and, yet, it works brilliantly. Reclaiming the costume from Scooby Doo, Abbot and Costello, E.T. takes the ghost back to its most simple but mournful iconography, those wonky eye holes remarkably conveying a whole host of emotions from sadness to anger through dismay and beyond. It is an audacious use of costuming and one that could well have backfired, pushing the central character into silliness or goofiness, that it doesn’t and that we can empathise with its inherent blankness is a testament to Lowery’s skill and daring (as well as that of cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo and costume designer Annell Brodeur).
There are no fast cuts, in fact the camera lingers at uncomfortable and necessary length occasionally putting us, the viewers, in the place of the ghost silent voyeurs with little to no power to affect the scene we are watching and, in the case of Rooney Mara eating a pie for what seems like an age (honestly, though, it is one of the most magnetic and moving scenes of cinema I’ve ever seen, painful in its honesty), witnessing the long, silent moments of empty desperation none of us would like to admit to but all, I suspect, share.
If A Ghost Story has only one message it is that we should appreciate the things we have while we’ve got them. And let go when they’re lost. It’s what M does and what C must learn to do. A broken heart shouldn’t last forever, there’s a whole new, bigger picture always waiting. We just need the courage to let go.