Why do human relationships and aspirations matter when Time will terminate both and only a few people might remember either? What do Time and Space lead to? What exactly happens when we die? These are the existential, borderline nihilistic questions which David Lowery’s melancholic A Ghost Story explores, “explore” being the key word there as there are no clear attempts to answer these questions in the film.
The opening of the film introduces us to C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), a young couple who are either very intimate with each other or distant and in conflict. M is portrayed as proactive and present, responsive to what’s at hand. C is more oblivious, easily losing himself in his music projects. After these brief introductions we find C dead in the wreckage of a car crash and subsequently M standing over his corpse in a sterile, white hospital room. When M solemnly shrouds C’s face with a white sheet and walks away, a figure arises under the sheet, beginning our Ghost’s story.
Beyond the title, A Ghost Story associates itself with the horror genre in typical fashion: a creaky, old haunted house where things go bump in the night, brief moments of suspense, paranormal happenings, etc. In the talk-back after a screening we hosted here in Pasadena, Lowery even mentions that wanting to do a horror film was part of the drive behind making A Ghost Story. However, he also wanted to do something fresh with the genre. So the Ghost’s appearance isn’t necessarily threatening or grotesque, but rather humorously abstracted into the quintessential ghost image.
While the ghost haunts M in particular and the home they shared in general, the haunting isn’t menacing as much as it is a kind of inquisitive observance – watching history unfold before and without him. Instead of feeling frightened and jarred by the story, I felt invited to sympathize with the silent figure and vicariously reflect on how easily the universe would move on without me and potentially without everything else. Helping with this vicarious experience is the precise camerawork and smooth editing that lingers on an image or events for minutes and then steadily pans or tracks to another space to find its new subject. It’s almost as if we, via the camera, are also the ghost in this narrative.
While attempting to frame the para-natural, as it were, A Ghost Story portrays more of the natural world to us than what’s beyond it. This film could have been more about the mystical experience “on the other side,” but instead it focuses on the experiences of life we do our best to avoid—authentic grieving or serious contemplation about life’s meaning—and the experiences we tragically let pass us by—the gift of being present with someone we love.
I have not seen a better cinematic portrayal of grief and longing than in the sequence where M lays on floor and listens to song C slaved over; the shot cuts to a moment when C first invites her to listen to the song. The colors in the flashback are warm and the music is crisp and loud, and then it cuts back to a forlorn M engulfed in a blanket of grey-blue hues with the music muffled by her headphones. This cross-cutting goes on for about a minute encapsulating how memory through grief can make the past so tangible yet so painfully unrepeatable.
Lowery found this film to be a gift of solace to the overwhelmed state he was in before making the film. It seemed liked the film allowed him to engage life fully and honestly though he didn’t have all of the answers for the questions life provokes. In a way, A Ghost Story demonstrates that we need not run away or distract ourselves from the cosmic mysteries and frustrating complexities of life. By engaging them, we might find release and comfort.