Life. Death. Love. Time. Permanence. A Ghost Story, the new film by writer/director David Lowery tackles these subjects in a way that is both unexpected and challenging. The result is a mesmerizing meditation on meaning in the vastness of the universe.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as C and M, respectively, a couple living in an old house. We’re only afforded a few scenes of them together before C is killed in a car accident and M is left to her grief. Unbeknownst to her, C returns to the house as a ghost, imagined here by Lowery in familiar imagery: a white sheet with two eye holes. What follows is C’s experience of the afterlife, tied to the house in which he’d lived.
Perhaps the most striking element of the film is how it relates C’s experience of time. As a ghost, he is not necessarily present in the same way as a living person. He has autonomy, but only to a certain extent; and he’s able to manipulate his environment if angered or frustrated. However, he’s more of an emotional shadow than a thinking person, an echo of the man he used to be trying to make sense of what’s going on around him. This interpretation of ghosts is especially effective as it allows Lowery to jump through time, showcasing the drifting nature of C’s attention span. Using clever edits and a freeform style of pacing, Lowery invites the audience into C’s altered headspace, showing a world that’s passing him by.
Early in the film, he watches M eat an entire pie to deal with her grief, then he looks away and a season has passed and M’s in the other room, getting ready for work; another turn and it’s been a year; M is returning from a date with another man and the house has been scoured of C’s belongings. It’s a somber take on the afterlife, one which is impressively powerful given just how little we know of the central characters. However, the slices of life that we are offered are intimate, relatable, and incredibly moving. M changes the comforter to her bed shortly after C’s death, then stops to inhales his familiar scent; she listens to a song C made, remembering the first time she heard it. C seeing her experience these moments compounds the film’s somber quality, imbuing it with unexpected weight.
This is also due to Rooney Mara’s wonderful performance. She is largely silent throughout the film, but she is able to imbue her character with such emotion that you see each stage of her grief, no matter the time period. C’s loss of life is also her loss and Mara, once again, proves the depth of her talent, effortlessly conveying a challenging mixture of emotions in another subdued, yet powerful performance.
However, this film would not succeed as wildly as it does without a compelling ghost. C’s frustration, sense of loss, and feeling of aimlessness are palpable thanks to a deft performance by Casey Affleck, who certainly made use of his mask work classes here. Also largely silent throughout the film, Affleck nevertheless manages to make C a sympathetic character through a mixture of stillness and measured movements: a head tilt, a slouch, a yearning glance. Thanks to him, C’s ghostly, silent presence is never dull, but rather filled with tangible moments of emotion.
As M gets further away from him, eventually leaving the house entirely, C becomes increasingly unmoored, cast adrift in time. The pacing of the film from here on is unique, as stated before, in that C skips through time, observing small moments between the ever-shifting inhabitants of the house, then become laser-focused on a single thing that interests him. Through these moments of intense concentration, the underlying message of the film is laid bare. I won’t go into it specifically for fear of spoilers, but I will say that I appreciate the complexity of the two-fold worldview posited. Overall, it is a commentary on life, death, time, and the meaning of art; the importance of permanence in a world that is itself impermanent. The true takeaway depends upon your point of view, but I admire that the film was able to discuss such a weighty subject in an abstract, nuanced, and meaningful way.
Much of the film’s success must be attributed to David Lowery, who used his proceeds from his previous directorial outing, Pete’s Dragon, to fund this film. His writing is spare, yet effective and he, along with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (You’re Next) are able to capture the everyday beauty of spaces, specifically within a house. They imbue these spaces with meaning, then break your heart as they show the passage of time; how others move through the very same places, oblivious to the significant moments that took place there. The ghost’s iconic design is also a stylistic boon for the film. It may seem humorous at first, but the white sheet soon takes on a wholly different quality as the story progresses. Its color fades; its edges becoming dirty, frayed. Everything about its design speaks to the character of C, his growing detachment and the endless, aimless nature of his existence. The way the filmmakers shoot Affleck beneath the sheet is immediately compelling and picturesque no matter the setting. The visceral, atmospheric beauty of the film is heightened by Daniel Hart’s haunting score, which fills C’s world with repeated motifs of grief and hope using a mixture of strings and subdued percussion.
Overall, A Ghost Story is a strange, powerful, and deeply moving film. It is definitely not for everyone, but for those willing to give themselves over to an experience and take the plunge, I do not think you’ll be disappointed. It offers a unique outlook on universal human experiences while also showcasing a worldview that might just be the most hopeful, uplifting thing I’ve seen in a long time. I adored this film and hope you do too.