David Lowery’s latest film, A Ghost Story, is out now in theaters and I cannot urge you enough to go see if you haven’t already. It is one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen to feature ghosts and envision what it might be like on the other side of death. At least emotionally, I imagine that we don’t wear bed sheets with scissor cut holes for eyes as we wonder about finding our place in the afterlife. It sounds silly on the surface, and I’d like be lying if I said I didn’t chuckle at it initially myself, but that aesthetic truly does work here. By removing typical facial features – other than scissor cut holes – we’re able to focus on the isolation that these ghosts find themselves in.
A Ghost Story stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, a married couple that is looking to move from a small rural house to something more modern and neighborly. The problem with that, however, is that Affleck finds comfort in this rural home and he has no interest in leaving. This causes some disparity between and his wife as they contemplate their next move.
Then, tragedy strikes.
David Lowery is very patient in A Ghost Story, methodically focusing on how place and time can sometimes leave us stuck, both physically and emotionally. Throughout each frame, once Affleck finds himself as a ghost, Lowrey is intentional about placing Affleck’s ghost as an observer as we see Mara cope with her newly found turmoil. In some scenes, the camera just lingers for minutes at a time as she grieves, unaware that her husband is witnessing this heartache. In one of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in 2017, Mara finds a pie on her kitchen table that her landlord left behind as a gift. Initially standing, she starts eating the pie for a few minutes before sitting down on the kitchen floor. Lowery then cuts to a shot where the camera lingers on a sitting Mara, and for the next literal five minutes, the camera remains stationary as we see Mara devour the entirety of this pie. The moments starts off with understandable self-indulgence and eventually it evolves into self-punishment, crystallizing in a heartbreaking way.
The scene is brilliant for a couple of reasons. One, Mara does a great job of emulating how overpowering grief can be when it comes so unexpectedly. Secondly, Lowery’s framing of the scene – in terms of his box ratio – offers rich symbolism as to how restricting it may feel when coping with loss and tragedy. There is also some interesting irony in that this moment takes place in the same house that Affleck found comfort in, where as Mara felt a void. And in order to make that conflict so visceral, Lowrey lets that scene play out in a real-time sense. The fact that he lets it happen over a five-minute stretch is important to the film’s overall success.
In fact, it’s the way Lowery plays with time that makes A Ghost Story so transcendent and personal. His aesthetics, the lingering camera shots, the way he frames his characters, the subtle but very effective editing, it all comes together to help amplify the film’s progression of time. We see some actions and sequences, like the aforementioned pie scene, play out in real-time, whereas we see other sequences expand over decades, showcasing emotional isolation on a compact scale, and also on a grander scale. It’s that dichotomy that gives the film such a rich and genuine pathos as it relates to the coping process. Lowrey’s patience in using elongated sequences fully taps into the intimacy of these characters, and the way he juxtaposes that by depicting huge swaths of time fully realizes the cyclical nature of life.
This leads me to what I found so profound about A Ghost Story. The film is certainly about grief, marriage, the unrelenting essence of time and our emotional attachment to places and things. But what strikes me the most is how the film becomes a meditation on the importance of closure. In dealing with loss and grief, closure is something we all yearn for as it brings mental and emotional piece to our lives, and Lowrey’s approach to time here is important in reverberating that idea. The compact and vast depictions of time help offer insight into how the lack of closure impacts us in the short term AND the long term. And here’s the fascinating kicker about A Ghost Story, the film suggests how vital that is on this side of death and arguably on the other side as well.
Once Affleck’s ghost comes to life, he finds himself in some sort of limbo or transitional period, where he longs to connect with his wife once more, or at the very least there is something that is keeping him from moving beyond this purgatory. Perhaps he simply wanted to spend more time in this house that he loved so much. Whatever it is, we see how the lack of closure persists from scene to scene as time continues to transpire, again in the short term and eventually the long term as well. And it’s in that shift to the long term, where the weight of this idea really becomes apparent, giving this film some true potency.
In one scene, as Mara prepares to move out of their house, she leaves a note behind one of the walls. This of course gains the attention of Affleck’s ghost, who had been desperately observing her as she prepped to leave. That does not stop as Mara leaves for the last time, which only amplifies this feeling of isolation in Affleck’s ghost and this desire to find this note. As time passes and more occupants enter the household, Affleck’s confliction only becomes more and more apparent. He’s clearly unsettled. What could this note say? What could it mean?
In another scene, we see Affleck’s ghost having a silent conversation with another ghost in the neighbor’s house, and it is revealed that the neighbor’s ghost is waiting for someone to return. The heartbreaking truth, however, is that the neighbor ghost cannot remember who it is they are waiting on. It’s already affecting to see how time negatively impacts one’s longing for closure, but to see how it all crystallizes for the neighbor ghost, that may have brought some tears. It’s great cinematic moment.
The idea of time and closure in A Ghost Story is very stirring, and let’s not forget that it is wonderfully highlighted by the fact that Affleck’s ghost chose this purgatory. There’s a moment early on in the film, when Affleck’s ghost is still in the hospital, where he had the opportunity for eternal peace. But there was something holding him back, and instead of choosing tranquility, he went back to his house. That act alone is one of the more fascinating choices this film makes. What if the supernatural world is rooted in mortal beings simply looking for closure? Often times we project terrifying notions onto the happenings of ghosts in film (and let’s be honest, that does make for some great horror), but maybe what’s really haunting is the idea of being stuck.
I love the questions Lowrey raises in A Ghost Story, and how he flips the coin by giving us a ghost movie that is almost entirely from the ghost point of view. The resulting imagery is endlessly evocative and emotionally vibrant. If anything, A Ghost Story has inspired my Halloween costume this year and no doubt I will wear it to find my note in the wall.
Featured Image: A24