A Ghost Story, Directed and written by David Lowery, is a film simultaneously about the passage and stillness of time. It’s a film that seems to harbours a certain fixation on the mundane despite (or because of) the separation enforced. It serves as a confluence for sentiment and existential angst. Above all, it’s a film that meditates on the coin that is life and death, using its eccentricities not to sideline the viewer, but instead to overwhelm.
It took my perusing of IMBD to realise that the central characters in A Ghost Story to confirm that they barely had names. They go by C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara). C, a musician, dies in a car crash soon after we meet him. He comes back as a ghost, the Scooby Doo kind, with a white sheet and black holes for eyes. C’s ghost makes its way back to his home, to M and he just lingers. He makes no sound, has no expressions and no decipherable gestures. He becomes a blank slate and Lowery invites us to draw our own emotions on this slate – one of the more compelling aspects of this film.
With C in his former home, the film drifts further and further away from the central relationship and invites introspection from the audience. Our time with M is spent observing her grieve, and then her moving on. The film throws some uber long takes our way, with glacial pacing to complement the atmosphere of loss. The heartache is excruciating for M. Lowry’s voyeuristic inclinations (heightened by the square frame ration with curved edges) became uncomfortable for me. These moments felt so private and so earnest that I wanted to turn away. The emptiness and loneliness is palpable until it isn’t; for M at least. The weight of loneliness seems to fall on solely on C’s head as it becomes clear M is overcoming her grief to the point where she eventually moves out their home.
A Ghost Story then transitions into a meditation on the afterlife. Lowry’s manipulation of time reminded me of the hell in the Preacher series. But this can’t be hell, can it? There is a sense of love and hope, though regret and anxiety and rage remain evident. Is this purgatory? Possibly. Or is it the moment right before we cross to the other side; when our life flashes before our eyes? I suspect Lowery would give us that yes and no answer. He changes things up, favouring stillness one second, to elicit the needed introspection, then resorting to an opinionated party goer to drop nuggets of wisdom and maybe cut to the core of the film.
It brought to mind Steve McQueen’s Hunger; a film that relies on its harsh visuals to tell its brutal soul-wrenching story but resorts to a spurt of heavy dialogue to cut through layers to a central truth that argues a central futility about man’s affairs. This futility remains a prison for man, but a prison man has the power to break free from. C’s journey remains eternally poetic and brilliance of the script and story structure begins to wash over you when the dots start to connect in a narrative that remains a step ahead of the audience. After a story rooted in some despair, Lowery decides to give in to sentiment when he could have offered a resolution that would have haunted me for the rest of my life – and I would have loved that.
The one thing I was sure I loved about A Ghost Story was how much it is an ode to silent cinema, especially in its most affecting moments. It wields a strong visual language enriched by smart editing. It’s not a film about performances. The film’s lead spends the film under a white sheet but there are some nuances to the physicality I just can’t put my finger on. I feel like the editing and atmosphere of scenes convey C’s temperament, which most of the time seems to mirror the blank sheet draped over Affleck.
When it’s all said and done, maybe we are overthinking things. In its simplest terms, A Ghost Story probably ranges from a metaphor for grief to a simple break up and letting go. A warning that all is indeed vanity. You squint your eyes a little and it feels like it’s not really clear who died and who is grieving. Death is but a separation in Lowery’s mind. A Ghost Story is so simple in the way it tells its story but it seems to be saying so much, bursting with ideas, some which will sound louder and ring truer depending on your life experiences. It just demands a great deal of patience to reap the full reward.