Overview: A man dies in a car crash and his spirit mournfully watches his lover and their home; A24; 2017; Rated R; 92 Minutes.
I’ve Hungered For Your Touch: We don’t see much of the lives of A Ghost Story‘s two main characters, listed as C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) in the film’s credits. Even the most important event, C’s death in a car crash, happens off screen and is observed instead in aftermath by a shot panning from their house, across tendrils of light mechanical smoke, to the wreckage of a collision with a young boy watching naively as C’s head rests lifeless on the steering wheel. Outside of that, at least on the first trip through, we get mostly the epilogue of arguments and the fruitless investigation of night-time noises. And yet still, A Ghost Story carries along earnestly with the weight of life in a way that very few films manage.
This is all by design. Director David Lowery, who reportedly prepared and filmed this movie as a secret kept from everyone, including his stars’ agents, has put forth a simple concept that manages both to explore ambitious philosophical themes and feel emotionally stirring on a very personal level. There’s already been plenty of discussion of how the design of C’s ghost (the stereotypical sheet draped over a body with two black holes for eyes) plays into this strategy. While perhaps a bit chuckle-worthy in its novelty (particularly when the spirit first sits up in the morgue bed) it doesn’t take long for the effect to take hold. This mournful manifestation, because of its stripped down presentation, operates as both a broad-scale concept canvas upon which Lowery can scribe his philosophical musings about the nature of time and life and love and the universe, but also one he can pointedly apply in emotional manipulation of the small scale character drama for which his theoretical essay plays host. Really, every element in A Ghost Story is as basic as the ghost design. We feel M’s grief not through dialogue or complex inter-character behavior, but by an uncut shot of her grieving while consuming essentially an entire pie that was left as a consolation. We hear just enough exchanged words between C and M prior to his death to know the general source of their relationship tension, which itself is determinedly basic. When C’s ghost falls through some metaphysical tunnel and manifests in a time before C’s life at the spot of his house’s eventual construction, we see what feels like a short stage play of pioneer settlement as to-the-point as anything that might be put on by an elementary school production. This ballet of stick-figure simplicity and nebulous complexity is marked by the rhythmically alternated string instruments of Daniel Hart’s score (perhaps my favorite this year).
Lonely Rivers Flow To The Sea: This is how Lowery maintains a position of middle ground that is often forfeited by the imbalance of like-minded filmmakers like Terrence Malick or Richard Linklater (the former of whom, at least, has traceable influence on the young director’s young filmography). Where Malick sweeps too freely into the realm of divine and infinite inquiry to leave his characters feeling cold in their conflicts an Linklater skates too freely onto the other side with a character specificity that obscures his masterful handling of time and temporality’s influence on his narrative, Lowery here makes everything in his film once specific and general, large and small, a sort of continuum model of all the things the film hopes to say through established feeling. This is how A Ghost Story lands as both intimately personal in the transferred heartache of its singular sadness and spiritually enlivened and uplifting with its use of that sadness to draw itself out into the realm of time and existence.
M eventually moves out of the house she shared with C, leaving her lover’s spirit to mourn her absence. In this stretch, a few things happen. First, C’s ghost makes contact with another ghost (played wordlessly by popstar Kesha), this one made of a sheet woven with a patterned designed and occupying a house across the lot. They speak either telepathically or through small gestures, the translation offered by simple sentence subtitles. This other unnamed ghost seems to have forgotten who he or she is waiting for, but the ghost keeps waiting. Second, C and M’s house becomes host to more tenants. The first is a single mother (Sonia Acevedo) of two young children (Carlos Bermudez and Yasmina Gutierrez) who become the victims of C’s frustrated breakdown that manifests for them as flying dishes, shattering glass, and cupboard doors flying open. Here, A Ghost Story becomes a more horrific poltergeist film observed from the other side of a dimensional two-way mirror. These two exchanged engage an eternal question–What’s left of a human after death?– not by asking the question, but by conjuring our asking through conceptual stimulation. In his tantrum, C seems to be a ghost carrying all of his former body’s emotion and memory, but the older ghost has demonstrably dimmed in both of those measures. Through the strangely expressive black holes of C’s ghost eyes and the language of Affleck’s body beneath the sheet, we feel he must recognize the suggestion of the more aimless ghost’s fading memory, and all of his current emotion becomes all the more poignant.
Time Can Do So Much: The next tenant hosts a party in which a seemingly inebriated attendant (played by musician Will Oldham) delivers an elongated monologue about the nature of everything: starting with art, moving out into human mortality, then stretching to the possibility of space colonization, which itself will be made moot by the unavoidable death of our sun and the eventual collapse of all matter in the universe. Thus, Lowery provides his most ambitious reach– that of cinematically discussing the relative smallness of human life, both in terms of the individual and the species, when placed against the vastness of time and whatever exists beyond time.
I think a lot about time. Honestly, probably too much. Apeirophobia and thanataphobia mark the two biggest motivators in my obsession with cinema– an art form that doesn’t just discuss time, but captures and freezes it for reevaluation. I obsessively engage films that are distinctly about man’s relationship to infinity (chiefly, Groundhog Day, Tree of Life, and the works of filmmakers like Chris Marker, the aforementioned Linklater, and the recent cartoons of Don Hertzfeldt). In the history of addressing my fixation with film, I don’t know that I have ever had my time-concerned anxieties as accurately represented, either literally or metaphorically, as they are by A Ghost Story’s shots of C’s ghost scraping fingerlessly at the paint in a door frame to remove a note placed by M within a slotted crevice before her departure from the home. The note itself is a small thing, not even a whole piece of paper, just the bottom margin, but whatever message it might hold becomes first a fixation for C and then an existential relief. In this way, A Ghost Story offers a resolution that is invaluably warm and comforting. Where every other film and filmmaker mentioned in thematic comparison eventually speculates some indeterminable abstract transcendence in which the individual human is liberated into his own sort of infinity (most often, through love, a condition that requires mortality as a precondition), A Ghost Story suggests that salvation from mortal fear and sorrow exists in the discovery of a sort of closure within one’s own limited portion of infinity, however long that portion may be, and that salvation could be triggered by any small discovery if we keep scraping with our love.
Overall: It isn’t enough to say that A Ghost Story is one of the best films of the year. A film like this, a film unique in its power even when compared to other films within its rare thematic type, is one for which any description or comparison will fail to convey just how inspiring, heartbreaking, and haunting it really is.
Featured Image: A24