ghost story

A Ghost Story

MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★½
Release year: 2017
Genre: Fantasy, Romance Director: David Lowery

A haunting viewfinder rotating through a beautiful carousel of time, A Ghost Story is nonetheless like the sheet surrounding its title character: thin, enigmatic, vapid, and lifeless. In its attempt to be a meditative observation on love and loss, mortality and metaphysics, filmmaker David Lowery’s experimental passion project is merely nice to look at. Filmed over the course of only a few days, and on a very limited budget, A Ghost Story is a fine example of an American indie art film–high on concept and aesthetics, but straining to find the dregs of meaning in its ambitious conceit.

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck portray M and C, respectively. They’re a couple* living quiet lives of desperation in a small Texas ranch house; C is a moody musician with a strange attachment to the place, while M is anxious, rearranging and packing things in preparation for a move which might never come. They represent different perspectives on life–rooted versus restless, anchored in a particular place in history, or intentionally displaced as a pilgrim in time. Lowery often frames them in the camera as disconnected, with one person out of focus, blurred from our vision in the background while the other navigates their existence alone. They clearly have a bond and are in love, but there’s an underlying tension which needs to be resolved.

This lingering lack of resolution is the linchpin of A Ghost Story. When the titular ghost awakens in a hospital covered in a lengthy sheet, the spirit slowly wanders the hallways, invisible to the world around. The ghost is in a self-inflicted purgatorial state, stuck in between life and death, waiting for someone to answer its unspoken, haunting question. The image of the ghost is wonderfully childlike, a bedsheet with eyeholes, whimsical and mysterious. The sheet drags along the ground behind it, the body underneath hidden from view, though sometimes revealed when backlit by the sunlight. It’s a tragicomic metaphor; in its childlike wonder, there’s a sadness to this ghost, an observer but not a participant in time. The motivations of the ghost are mostly opaque, leaving the audience to project their own ideas and emotional responses. The ghost does have a humorous interaction with a neighborly phantom which hints at their desires, their silent conversation recorded in subtitles. The next-door ghost admits it is waiting for someone, but it can’t remember who is coming. These ghosts long for contact and intimacy, and find none. It’s a tedious existence. The audience feels this too, as A Ghost Story breaches the line from “contemplative” into “slow-and-boring.” It can be contemplative only when there are genuinely interesting ideas or characters to contemplate.

Two significant scenes are the heart of A Ghost Story, as well as indicators whether or not the viewer will appreciate the film. The first involves a pie; the second, a party. In the former, a grief-stricken character consumes an entire pie while sitting on the floor of the kitchen, gorging until driven to throw up. The ghost watches this from a corner, unmoving and (apparently) unmoved. It aims to be a gripping depiction of grief, a self-destructive consumption in the light of horrific loss. I confess, I found myself nodding off during the lengthy sequence. This deep-dive filmic meditation about grief and suffering left me unaffected, which is significant–I’m a cryer in movies, and I left the theater dry-eyed.

The second scene is the drunken philosophical ramblings of a party-goer, who goes on at length about the meaning of human existence in light of the relentless nature of time. We may create art and beauty, but who will remember it? What legacy does it truly leave if all of it will? If there is no God–and he seems to suggest this to likely be the case–then when the planet and universe ultimately succumb to death and decay, what will matter? It’s hard to tell if we’re to take this gentleman seriously; he’s presented as comical, but it’s the lengthiest piece of dialogue in the entire film, so I imagine Lowery wants us to pay attention. If the party-goer’s homily is the film’s thesis, it’s all a bit too obvious.

A Ghost Story is a highly agnostic film–it refuses to take sides in any spiritual or moral tradition, holding fast to a position of unknowing and an inability to know. This isn’t a celebration of mystery, per se; it’s more of a firm confidence in human ignorance and uncertainty. That the film refuses to answer nearly any of the questions it raises–particularly the contents of a hand-written note the ghost keeps struggling to find–is indicative of this agnosticism. It deliberately leaves the audience out of the loop and suggests that this is “deep” and “profound.” The deliberate cinematography and editing give A Ghost Story its sense of purpose and intentionality, but the beautiful formal elements are in service of a hollow content. The ghostly figure in the bedsheet is the perfect metaphor for the film itself–it looks haunting and intriguing, but it’s mostly empty underneath. In the end, it’s just a piece of cloth.

A Ghost Story feels like a young adult’s meditation on existence, someone without the lived experience to go along with the supposed weight it carries. It raises existential questions with sincerity, yet there’s a lack of maturity here, a wisdom that may come with the passing of time. The childlike imagery carries childlike ideas about reality and meaning. It’s like a Terrence Malick film without the wisdom and wonder that emerges from decades of simply being. (For those who love this film but are critical of Malick’s recent projects, help me understand what you’re seeing here.) I recognize this unripened perspective because I see it in myself and my peers; Lowery is only a few years older than me, squarely in the mid-30s. We have all sorts of passionate ideas and beliefs, lots of wisdom, much of it legitimately good. But we certainly haven’t arrived yet. We’ve lived through pain, loss, and existential crises, but I’m not sure we’ve lived long enough to have wholly contemplated and processed those experiences in a way which feels coherent. Perhaps I’m just projecting upon Lowery my own insecurities, but I wonder if he’d agree, that he hasn’t “arrived” yet either, just like the ghost in this film. The ghost observes, passing through time, watching and waiting and wondering. We watch this watcher, and wonder what it all means. It may mean nothing. A Ghost Story is an observation about observation, a film which invites the audience to quietly watch someone quietly watching. I only wish it had more to say.

*The descriptions of this film on Wikipedia, IMDB, and A24 describe Mara’s character as “wife,” but Lowery is cryptic in interviews, and it’s never actually stated or revealed in the film that they’re married. Make of that what you will.

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