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'A Ghost Story': An Ethereal Tale of Loneliness, the Afterlife, and Closure

Traditional storytelling in regards to ghosts have become rife with clichés. The majority of stories follow a generic plot formula of someone moving into a place, witnessing supernatural occurrences being performed by some ghostly presence, and then trying to exorcise or escape said spirit. These stories play out as cheap horror tales and rarely provide anything beyond a bland gruesome exposition as to why the spirit is the way they are. Ghost stories use to originally be known as pure horror fiction, but as time has gone on, the genre has experimented with more drama. There are those films that aim to give us a more profound look at such supernatural beings, striving to give us a look into what they’re feeling and who they are. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is one of those films, as it presents its ideas and themes through ethereal and unique storytelling. 

A Ghost Story stars Casey Affleck (as “C”), and Rooney Mara (as “M”). Within the film’s first few minutes we are introduced to the young couple as they talk to one another in bed. Not too long after this we are shown a car accident where C has died. We then come to M standing and looking over his body at the hospital before he is covered up. When she leaves, the camera just sits there for some time when all of a sudden, C sits up, the sheet over his body. We then transition to him walking out of the hospital, the sheet still over him, with two holes cut out where his eyes would be. C returns to his home, lingering about the various rooms he once inhabited. He watches M go about her day as she continues to live. At this point there isn’t any indication given as to what the actual direction of A Ghost Story is. And this is where the film begins to share its ideas.

The film doesn’t present the ghost as some antagonistic force meant to be vanquished, but as the central part to the work’s themes. This is a film that caters more to emotion and philosophy rather than traditional storytelling. The art house direction allows the picture to become a truly haunting and meditative experience. It’s a film that asks its audience to process grief, loneliness, and to consider our own mortality. This is successfully captured through the characters, along with the technical aspects of the camera work.

Rooney Mara in 'A Ghost Story' (2017) [Source: A24]

Rooney Mara in 'A Ghost Story' (2017) [Source: A24]

There is one scene near the beginning where C is standing in the living room, watching M as she has just returned home. It is not clear to us how much time has gone by since C has passed away. M drops off a bag, picks up a pie on the kitchen table, and plops onto the kitchen floor to begin consuming it. There’s no score at work, the inside lighting fairly dim, with some sunlight coming through the shades to graze M’s legs as she devours the pie. We watch her eat bite after bite as the time goes by. All of a sudden, us as the viewer may begin to wonder, “How much longer is this going to go on for?”

The camera just stays on her as she continues to eat, C in the corner watching her. Since we are given so much time to see her, we begin to notice little things: the way she is hunched over, her aggression, the way her face appears tired. This goes on for a few minutes without any transition in shots. On paper this may all sound very random, but the experience in watching it is rather unique. For as the time goes by, there’s this sadness that begins to wash over her and the audience.

Slowly things begin to click in regards to the purpose of all of this. It all makes for a remarkable and realistic example of mourning and loneliness. We are witnessing someone in their home (a home they use to share with someone they loved), now having to live alone. The film doesn’t try to show M going through a road map of cliché movie plot points where she takes her various ups and downs to move on… she just has to keep on living with how things are. We get small snippets of her trying to socialize and date, but these moments are sparse. What ends up luring the audience into the emotion are those periods of drawn out and focused shots.

A Ghost Story implements many of these static long shots. Sometimes it may be a person doing something mundane or some place within the house, but the camera will just sit there for a few minutes with nothing extraordinary happening. This ends up having two effects on the film: 1). The camera itself acts as a ghostly presence, watching as the world around it takes place. And 2). Because of how long these shots are, it allows the viewer to take in all the emotion that is coming from the characters.

While the film does a terrific job of demonstrating such themes through M in the pie scene, it is actually the character of C that ends up being the star of the picture. After an unspecific amount of time goes by, M decides to pack up and leave the house. She writes a small note, and sticks it within the wall of the house. C is unable to leave his home, and while he spends an unspecific amount of time trying to pull the note from the wall, he becomes sidetracked when a new family moves in. From there, A Ghost Story follows C as he watches the home go from owner to owner. Since C is a ghost, we as the audience are never given a clear understanding of how much time is actually taking place within the film. But through all the years that take place, C is still striving to read the note M left.

The majority of C’s scenes where he walks through various rooms and watches over people mirror that of the scene with M eating pie. They are very simple moments with nothing exciting actually taking place. There is no great action or major development being presented to the viewer, just the moment. Whether it’s from the character’s actions or the technical elements of the camera work, A Ghost Story uses every element it can to act as a meditative piece. It is a work meant for one to be mindful of the current moment, and to take in the emotions that it exudes.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in 'A Ghost Story' (2017) [Source: A24]

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in 'A Ghost Story' (2017) [Source: A24]

While C’s movements are sparse, it’s this lack of physical action that ends up saying the most. C’s existence is that of pain and loneliness as he haunts the house in his ghostly form without any clarity in regards to M’s note. As the years go by, and without any human form to help him chip away at the wall, he just can’t reach it. In a sense, whereas M grieves for C’s death, C grieves that he can no longer be with the one he loves and receive any closure. The film explores various ideas in mortality, the afterlife, and the human condition in living, whether it’s through the viewer watching C roam about, or listening in on what living characters have to say. A Ghost Story asks us: If ghosts are real, what’s their purpose? What’s the point in being a ghost? And if ghosts are a spiritual form that linger about the earth, what does it take for them to move on?

The film ends on a romantic gesture, yet adding more fuel to the existential questioning. While Mara is only in the picture for a short time, her performance gives us a context for the pain that Affleck’s character feels. The film’s pacing allows us to bond with the ghost, and feel for him through heartache. This is a film that prefers to ask questions of its audience, rather than spoon feed them action packed plot points. Given our understanding of traditional ghost stories, if there was any part of this work to be viewed as a horror film, it would be the horror of pure loneliness with no closure. Rather than the story focus on the ghost character haunting others, the film has us view how the ghost is haunted by its own pain, and gets us to wonder what the point of our existence in the afterlife might mean. A Ghost Story is an outstanding work of art, for in its minimalistic actions of its characters and setting, the work ends up saying a great deal about our connection to others, how we grieve, and what may come of us.