David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is a curious beast. The title’s at once both misleading and a perfect description of the film. It’s a story about a ghost, but it absolutely isn’t a horror film. It’s nothing like what we’re conditioned to expect from the term “a ghost story”. Instead, it’s a film that possesses a strange, almost childlike sense of magic and poignancy that recalls, of all things, Raymond Briggs’ children’s classic The Snowman. For those that open themselves up to it, it’s an experience like no other; a melancholy masterpiece.
The story, such as it is, concerns a couple living in a suburban house in America. They’re referred to only as ‘C’ (Casey Affleck) and ‘M’ (Rooney Mara), and their life together is authentically portrayed. They’re in love, sure, but that comes with all the frustrations and baggage of any relationship. When C suddenly dies in a car accident, M’s distraught, breaking down in what’s now become a cold and empty house. Little does she know that she isn’t really alone at all, because C has returned as a ghost, albeit an unseen and unheard phantom. How do we know he’s a ghost? He wears a white sheet with two eye holes cut into it. Naturally.
C proceeds to quietly haunt his old home—or, at least, the location it stands on—in an epoch-spanning afterlife that takes him on a journey beyond human limits, and conversely, nowhere at all.
A Ghost Story is a film that certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. It features a lot of long, static shots, and has a bare minimum of dialogue. Some will undoubtedly be put off by its arthouse leanings, but that same style helps to create a story that feels unique and cosmically magical. Lowery’s film generates a feeling of suspended animation, of being frozen in a moment. And yet, simultaneously, a sense of time stretching endlessly, and the impermanence of life. It’s an existential paradox that can’t help but enthral.
The film’s about many things: loss and grief, and the things we leave behind, but also the futility of art and, by extension, life itself. It’s about physical spaces and what we ascribe to them, it’s about history (both personal and writ large), and perhaps most of all, it’s about learning to let go. If that all sounds weighty, then perhaps Lowery’s greatest achievement is in making a film that feels anything but. Much of that is down to the minimalist design of the ghost itself.
The spooky conceit is genius. C’s spectre is every inch a child’s vision of what a ghost should look like, and you can’t help but smile. Such a silly visualisation being afforded such gravity is the film’s masterstroke. The sporadic offbeat humour reaches a crescendo when the ghost meets another of his kind, while a long monologue delivered at a party (long after M’s moved on and the house has been repopulated) is another memorable highlight. Delivered by Will Oldham (a.k.a musician Bonnie Prince Billy), it’s a compelling diatribe on the fact that everything will eventually die and thus there’s no point to anything. It’s a compelling, nihilistic delight, accounting for by far the majority of the film’s dialogue.
With so little dialogue (it’s interesting to note the Spanish dialogue isn’t subtitled, yet the silent communication between ghosts is), the music does a lot of the heavy lifting, and Daniel Hart’s score accomplishes this task brilliantly. The soundscape is appropriately haunting, and surges with more electronica than you might expect. It sweeps us along, conveying the film’s mood without ever being obvious.
At times the ghost dominates the frame, and at others he’s so subtly placed in the background—and so still—that you’ll easily forget he’s there, if you even notice him at all. He becomes a part of the furniture. But when he does move, he does so with a slow grace—each move deliberate and considered, his every action somehow feeling inevitable or preordained.
As C, in the first instance, stands silently vigil over his grief-stricken wife, the range of emotion the film conveys with just a white sheet and two blank eye-holes is remarkable. Every fold of the ghost’s sheet speaks to us about sadness, melancholy, longing, stoic patience, or—on one occasion—petulant anger. It’s all there in what is very literally a blank canvas, making it a feat of Pixar-level anthropomorphic genius.
While Affleck’s kept off-screen for much of the film, hidden beneath his increasingly-stained sheet, Rooney Mara is the face we see most, and she’s fantastic. The audience, much like the ghost, become an unseen intruder on M’s grief, as we see her at her most vulnerable. One notable scene (which I sincerely hope they only needed one take of) sees Mara eating an entire dessert pie over the course of an unbroken five-minute sequence. She eats not for pleasure, but out of pain and sorrow, just to feel something. It’s deliberately provocative—both as a drawn-out piece of filmmaking, a committed feat of acting, and as an invasion of the character’s privacy—but it’s a striking insight into what the grieving process might look like when we think nobody’s around to see it.
Lowery is so clever in conveying time as a concept, too. To the ghost—and by extension, us—decades pass in minutes, and yet in moments like the pie scene, such mundanity’s dragged out far beyond what feels natural. Time is fluid and inconsistent in this strange afterlife, and Lowery’s own smart editing masterfully depicts C’s strange passage through aeons. Long after M has moved away, the ghost remains, anchored to the site of his home, waiting—in true ‘ghost story’ style—for some resolution to his mortal life before he can move on. It would be no fun to spoil what else occurs on the site of their house, but suffice it to say that our ghost bears witness to far more than just a few new tenants passing through.
The cinematography is also superb. Much as he’s fated to linger in his old house beyond all reasonable measure of time, the camera often seems to pin or trap the ghost in the frame, while the boxy aspect ratio further confines him. The grainy visual aesthetic amplifies the personal nature of what we see; at times, it feels like a home movie from beyond.
A Ghost Story is not a scary film, and it’s not even trying to be. The one moment our spectral hero acts like a stereotypical spook, it comes off as laughably petulant. The film’s oddness and its obtuse style won’t enamour it to everyone, but if you let it sweep you up, it’ll take you on a beguiling, disquieting, strangely hopeful ride into a life after life—both on a personal and widely existential level. It may not be frightening, but A Ghost Story is a film that will haunt you in other, more brilliantly complex ways for a long time afterward.
Cast & Crew
writer & director: David Lowery.
starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham, Sonia Acevedo, Rob Zabrecky & Liz Franke.