A Ghost Story (2017)

David Lowery | 1hr 32min

Even before Casey Affleck’s character C passes away in a car collision, it feels as if we are watching the events of A Ghost Story unfold from behind a thin gauze. The unusually boxy aspect ratio with rounded corners that David Lowery filters the film through gives the impression of an old-fashioned camera viewfinder, often set back in static, detached wide shots captured in a shallow focus. With an extremely minimalist approach to dialogue, the material world becomes a quiet limbo of poignant self-reflection, inhabited by a silent ghost caught between planes of existence. There is no horror that comes from this premise though – A Ghost Story is exactly what its name suggests, using its narrative form to watch grief, time, and existence play out from the perspective of the titular spectre.

C’s new, ghostly appearance would almost be comical in its setup if it wasn’t played with such melancholy. His partner, M, arrives at the hospital to confirm the identity of the body under a white sheet, and then as if to instinctually suppress the heartache, she pulls the sheet back up above his face and solemnly departs. From this point on it never comes off his body, covering him like a home-made Halloween costume, though also visually concealing any traces of his old identity. Reading his facial expressions is impossible, and even body language is hard to gage when he isn’t moving his arms. In the mind of a bereaved M trying to move on with her life, his presence is a haunting symbol of grief, far removed from the man she used to know. He is not quite a monster like the Babadook, actively trying to tear her apart, but he rather manifests as a colourless, shapeless, passive entity, marked by the negative space he numbly inhabits.

The death and rebirth of C, held in this melancholy frame created from layers of curtains and doorways.
A very simple character design, almost comical, but it serves its purpose in suppressing C’s individuality.

With limited ability to interact with the real world, time moves slowly for C. Lowery delineates the first half of A Ghost Story with long, lingering takes, some lasting almost up to ten minutes as we simply sit and watch Rooney Mara’s M suffer through her grief. As we peer through doorway frames and slowly pan across the setting, we too become an invisible entity existing at the edges of her periphery, sluggishly dragging ourselves from one room to the next while she puts herself back together, finds new love, and eventually moves out. Still, the expressionless ghost of C remains, dealing with his own grief as the world he is familiar with changes bit by bit.

A good number of shots framed through windows and entryways, confining M to a single location.
The longest shot in the film held for almost ten minutes as we watch C devour this pie out of grief, all the while M lingers in the background just on the frame’s peripheral.

It is at A Ghost Story’s midpoint where the careful control that Lowery exerts over his pacing reveals itself more clearly, rhythmically accelerating its heavy lethargy until we tangibly feel the past slipping away. His commitment to slow, real-time scenes early on makes the shift even more disorientating, passing through the single minute that passes between M moving out and strangers moving in with barely a disruption. Elsewhere, Lowery’s elliptical editing takes shortcuts between weeks, months, and years, and graphic match cuts find common threads between the present and the distant future. By the time we find ourselves in an advanced, sprawling metropolis standing on the grounds of C’s demolished country house, there is nothing left of his modest life. Still, that anguish lives on, bearing witness to a shifting world that doesn’t return the recognition of its quiet existence.

Lowery transposes the feeling of grief onto film, letting time slip away as the world moves on, and then suddenly we’re centuries into the future – but the heartache is still there.

In skilfully translating the overwhelming, inert feeling of grief into the language of film with such little dialogue, Lowery effectively follows through on the creative premise he sets out, slicing through time like a sharp razor that can cut everything but the eternal emptiness that silently hides in the corner. That heartache doesn’t just travel in a single direction here though, but it echoes out across history as well, right back to the foundations of the house being built in the 19th century, and eventually doubling back on itself to the moment it was born at C’s mortal death. In frustration, the ghost C strikes a cluster of notes on the piano in the middle of night, recalling the same noise which woke him and his wife many centuries ago. This grief has been haunting the world not just before he died, but before he was even born, running threads of fatalism and nihilism deep into C’s very existence, and poignantly recognising the inevitability of its expiry.

Perhaps we can identify the key to his escape via the monologue that Lowery lands at about the halfway mark of A Ghost Story, offering Will Oldham an entire scene to wax lyrical about the tiny remnants of humanity which carry on through collective memories, and their ultimate obliteration. For C, that remnant is a note stuffed in a wall left behind by M as a token of her life in the old country house. One must wonder whether it is tying C to the location against his will, or whether the pull it has over him is purely emotional, keeping him from finding any sort of resolution. Given his conscious decision to not step into the light when he first dies, the latter looks like the more likely possibility. In A Ghost Story, resolution is found not in being released from life, or even in trying to preserve our immortal legacy, but rather by looking into and understanding the minds of our loved ones. Perhaps there may come a point when we are no longer remembered, but Lowery ultimately has no qualms about the fragility of human existence, contentedly accepting its insignificance and simply pondering – maybe eternity is overrated.

M always looking through windows, out at a world he can’t be a part of.

A Ghost Story is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.


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