Earlier this year, I read Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here. It’s a book entirely composed of drawings of a particular space, depicted from the beginning of time to far in the future. One page will show a man in 2005 taking care of his father in his living room, for example, and the next page will show a Native American shooting an arrow, hundreds of years in the past, but in the same spot. One page shows a holographic woman in 2213 teaching a group of tourists about the technology people used centuries ago, and another shows the Earth being born billions of years ago. It’s the story of a space.
When I wrote about Here, I described the strange, disorienting feelings I experienced as I read it. I described the way disjointed panels from different time periods got more and more crowded on each page, the way time felt like it was speeding up and becoming louder, crescendoing to deafening volumes. It was overwhelming, and claustrophobic, feeling like the walls of spacetime were closing in around me. I felt insignificant, like one blip in the greater scheme of things. I felt profoundly isolated, at moments, like I was witnessing something humans weren’t equipped to process emotionally or intellectually – it reminded me of the last act of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Under the Skin. Yet it was somehow life-affirming, too.
David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a film adaptation of Here. I kept thinking about how similar they were as I watched the movie, how I felt that same sense of isolation, fear, and hope, all coexisting. Here, in some ways, is more out-there than A Ghost Story – it spans from the creation of Earth to thousands of years in the future, while the timeline of A Ghost Story spans from the 19th century to an undefined point maybe 100 or 200 years in the future. But while Here is an incredible, underrated story, it lacks an element that A Ghost Story has: an underlying structure, anchored by a singular, personal story threaded through its cosmic backdrop.
The film is split up roughly into three acts, all starring Casey Affleck as C, who dies near the beginning of the film and haunts his house as a ghost. In the first act, we get a brief but poignant glimpse at C’s marriage to M (Rooney Mara). It’s an impressive feat that C’s death hits so hard, considering neither character is fully sketched-out. The long takes of C and M simply lying in bed together, kissing a little but otherwise just cuddling or sleeping, are sufficient; by lingering on this couple for minutes at a time, Lowery makes their relationship feel realer and more authentic than most romantic relationships in movies. M’s soft, gentle kisses and C’s arm curled around her are enough. Their intimacy is powerful in its silent simplicity.
After C dies, the first act is largely a personal meditation on grief. The glimpses we get of M’s grieving process are understated and all the more powerful because of it. There are no scenes of M melodramatically sobbing into a loved one’s arms. We don’t see a funeral, nor do we meet either C or M’s families. Instead, for one unbroken five-minute take, we watch M eat a pie. She takes a couple bites, then just keeps eating, faster and faster. Maybe she hasn’t eaten much since her husband died, and now she’s realizing how hungry she is. Maybe she’s just overeating out of stress and sadness, because she wants to feel something, to take action in a situation hopelessly out of her control. Seeing the tears dripping off the crest of M’s nose as she gobbles pie is somehow infinitely more interesting and sad than seeing her sob into a pillow would be.
Above all, there’s fatigue. In the days following C’s death, M moves like the life has been sucked out of her limbs. She forgoes methodically cutting a piece of pie at the table, instead collapsing on the floor and shoveling spoonsful into her mouth. The physicality Mara brings to this part is essential; she drags herself to her bedroom, her shoulders sunken and her legs on the verge of buckling. She can’t be bothered to scoot her body up the bed to the pillow. She just lies down on the first surface she can find.
And this isn’t even mentioning the ghost lingering in the corner, watching everything. C seems paralyzed to the spot, watching M carry on without him. And the saddest part is this: M will move on. M will slowly regain the life in her limbs, and start striding purposefully again, holding her shoulders high and going to work. She will pack up her stuff, hide a final message in the newly painted wall, and move out like she always meant to. She’ll even start dating again. Sure, C wants her to move on and live her life and be happy. But, to a certain extent, in his heart of hearts, he doesn’t. Love is selfless, but it’s always a little selfish, too. You can be willing to sacrifice your happiness for your partner’s peace of mind, to allow them to move on because you know it’s the right thing for them, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it.
And that’s just the first act.
In the second act, M finally moves away, and time starts to pass more quickly. C watches as families move in and out. Someone throws a party, and in an uncharacteristically blunt scene, one partygoer (Will Oldham) waxes poetic about how everything humans ever create will be lost and forgotten. Even if we populate our solar system, he argues, eventually the whole universe will collapse and die, so nothing we create will ever be remembered. It’s certainly a common sentiment, but it feels a little on the nose in this movie, because he’s talking explicitly about the main themes of the movie. He’s not necessarily a mouthpiece for Lowery; his monologue is utterly bleak and cynical, and in retrospect, I get the sense that Lowery is more hopeful about the same topics. At this point in the movie, though, his nihilistic worldview seems justifiable. After all, time is already beginning to pass disconcertingly fast.
The film begins rapidly jumping forward in time; like in Here, it feels like everything is moving too fast. C’s house is demolished, replaced with a skyscraper, which turns into a street full of skyscrapers, which turns into a whole new city. The film mimics the very real sense of life passing before your eyes too quickly. Life seems to start slow, then gradually grow in speed, then accelerate exponentially faster and faster. Before you know it, you suddenly find yourself in a place and time you don’t even recognize anymore.
C falls off a building and falls backward in time, to a moment before his house was even built. Upon first arriving here, it’s easy to think of this time as more serene and beautiful than the chaotic, futuristic cityscape that gradually overtook the picturesque rural Texan charm of C’s old home. With all the green, and the lack of people and buildings, it’s tempting to think that way. But once you look past the peaceful surface, this is just as dangerous and scary a time as the urbanized future. C watches as settlers make camp, are slaughtered, and rapidly decompose over the course of years (each time it cuts, we skip forward in time to different stages of decomposition). The past is no refuge.
It takes a certain skill to pull off, but any kind of art that reminds you of your place in the world – that reminds you of your infinitesimal size compared to the overwhelming scope of the universe, of the tiny pixel of space you occupy in an infinitely long timeline – has the potential to be both unspeakably terrifying and unspeakably beautiful.
In the shorter third act, C watches from the outside as M and his alive self first move into their house. He watches their marriage play out, remembering the good and the bad. He watches them sing, and argue, and lie together in bed, alone, no music, just the sound of their breath and the slow calmness of their heartbeats.
This third act is what ties everything together, what makes A Ghost Story truly great. If Act I was about the very personal story of a grieving woman and the ghost who helplessly watches her, and Act II was a more ambitious epic about a mind transcending its human constraints and witnessing the staggering scope of time, Act III synthesizes the two tones by bringing the story back to the personal. At the end, seeing what will become of this place isn’t what gives C closure, nor is watching its history play out. What allows C to move on is coming home and returning to the life he has known, his home and the person he loves. Finally, C brings this narrative full-circle, sitting on the piano and causing the bang that woke up C and M at the start of the movie.
With this return to the personal, Lowery finally and convincingly refutes the partygoer from Act II, who believed that everything was for naught. We (and C) can see, now, that what matters isn’t reckoning with the enormity of the universe. We don’t have to witness everything, to stop caring about everything simply because of our insignificance. That’s the quickest way to be unhappy. What really matters is the people we have in our lives, what they meant to us and what we meant to them. C finally chips off the final bit of paint and retrieves the message M left him, and the story is complete; there’s nothing left to wait for. He abruptly vanishes, and the sheet crumples to the ground.
As I left the theater, I felt like I was stumbling through a changed world. I looked at people differently. I felt the weight of time more acutely. Being open to that sensation is almost unbearably scary, and it’s hard not to simply curl up and convince yourself the universe revolves around you. But as I walked home and thought about how I was just a speck, a grain of sand on a sand planet in a galaxy filled with sand planets in a universe filled with sand galaxies, I felt confident that there was a reason to be here. Maybe I was a grain of sand, but everyone else was, too. Maybe I could live for all the other grains of sand, and allow them to live for me. Sure, maybe nothing matters, in the grand scheme of things. Or maybe all of it matters.
Featured Image: A24