Written By: Daniel Kinsley
Death comes for us all.
While A Ghost Story (2017) is a film with a tremendous amount on its mind, it is this inevitability that never seems far from its focus. The film opens with C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara)* a married couple living in a home which they are preparing to leave. There is something of a disconnect between them over the house, though it is not immediately clear as to why. Before the disconnect is revealed, however, the man dies. At first, the only indication that anything has occurred is a fog lingering over the front yard of their home. It is an image that would not feel out of place in a traditional horror film. It is revealed through a slow pan that the fog is actually smoke from a cooling engine, as the audience bears witness to the aftermath of the car accident which takes the life of C.
After confirming her husband’s identity, M. spends a few quiet moments alone before leaving him in the care of the morgue. When C’s spirit rises, he is shrouded under a plain white bed sheet, with two wide eyes cut out, looking every bit like a DIY Halloween costume. This is arguably still the most effective (if primitive) representation of a ghost in our culture and it is to the great credit of the film (and the costume designer) that it never once feels silly. In fact, the opposite is true; the longer the ghost remains the focus of the film, the more affecting it becomes.
The Ghost soon returns home to watch his widow as she navigates her grief. Much was made after the film first debuted about a scene in which Mara consumes nearly a whole pie in one unbroken take. It does feel like it goes on forever, but that is the point. ** While M. chokes back her tears with pie, the ghost watches on, an eternity made up of a series of moments like this one. Mara turns in truly understated work as she mourns, then slowly begins to pick up the pieces, and finally, moves on. But before she leaves for good, she writes something on a tiny note, folds it up, and places it inside a crack in a wall. After she is gone, the ghost remains, now unable to leave this home he felt anchored to in life.
For the most part, the film eschews a traditional narrative, instead looking to achieve a mood, which only grows more abstract as the film goes on. It is much like the sort of dreamy work made popular by auteurs like Malick and Lynch ***, where the action driving the story forward is largely internal. This is compounded by the lack of expressiveness of the Ghost; the film asks the viewer to consider his feelings largely through memories, and those few instances when he chooses to interact with the living world. Following the departure of his widow, the focus pivots, as the ghost is left to interact with new inhabitants: a Hispanic single mother and her two children. As he wanders through the house, new scenes of domesticity are revealed each time the Ghost turns a corner; the decorating of a Christmas tree, the children playing with mini light-up cars, each one revealing the hazy passage of time. Soon though, the family is gone with no explanation, replaced by a party filled with writhing bodies, pulsing music, and bottles of beer. For a film far more comfortable with silence than most, it is a striking mid-point. The camera pans through the party-goers before settling mid-conversation on a group sitting around the kitchen table. In the most dialogue-filled scene in the entire film, one of the men takes to a long monologue about what gives us the motivation to create anything, from music, to art, to memories. He argues that everything is cyclical, but ultimately futile, as even the universe itself will one day end. Much of the film seems to support this perspective. The house is razed and replaced, and while there is eventually nothing left of who he once was, still he remains. For his part, however, The Ghost spends much of the time trying to retrieve the note from inside the crack in the wall, left behind by his widow. It is a contradictory thematic point that feels true, nonetheless; to a vast, indifferent universe, nothing matters, but to those of us swirling around the cosmos, everything does. In this regard, the film seems to contend that everything we do is in some way in pursuit of being remembered, despite the enormousness of time, and the fact that each of us, in turn, will be lost to it.
The passage of time grows more opaque as the film goes on. Everything operates on its own internal logic, rather than any recognizable one. Viewers who get hung up on what is literal and what is not will be frustrated, but to be too literal would be to miss the emotional truths the film strives for. The Ghost experiences time as it accelerates, and then loops back on itself, yet everything maintains an emotional and logical coherence. The story truly finds its verve as it reveals some purpose behind this odyssey, culminating in an eerily beautiful shot that ties it all together. The final scene reduced this writer to a blubbering mess, and has remained burrowed under the skin for some time after the film ended.
Writer-director David Lowery deserves a lot of credit simply for having the confidence to create a vision so abstract and existential. The film is an experiment, to be sure, but for this writer, it is a wildly successful one. It is also beautiful, and elegiac, and if you are susceptible to that sort of thing, it will linger, and perhaps make you look at the world around you a bit differently.
Shot in a square aspect ratio, with the corners rounded to soften the edges, the film almost feels like looking through a camera lens to view an intimate home movie. The editing is sparse, with long static shots, and an abundance of silence. It is not the sort of film that will cater to a mass audience; however, those who respond to the lyricism will be rewarded with an experience this writer feels comfortable saying is nearly unlike anything else in cinema, now or ever.
* This is the second collaboration between the two and writer-director David Lowery, following Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013).
** For the trivia-minded, the scene in question is actually nearly four minutes long.
*** Namely, the ethereal notes of The Tree of Life (2011)