A Ghost Story
A perceptive cinematic poem on living, loving, losing and what comes next.
July 29, 2017
When you're grieving, you're haunted. Not in a literal sense, but you might wish you were. Instead, you're haunted by bittersweet flashes of happier times. Haunted by the spaces you shared with someone who'll never again walk through that door, sit on this couch or share your bed. Haunted by knowing you'll always associate certain places with a person who is gone forever.
A Ghost Story only shows this experience directly for a small portion of its running time, but the entire movie whispers it like the sweet nothings the bereaved still yearn to hear. When M's (Rooney Mara) husband C (Casey Affleck) is killed suddenly, she roams around their Texan house, cries and devours a whole pie, and then eventually finds a way to move on. But he does not. Wearing the sheet M placed gingerly over his head when she identified his body, C gets up from his morgue slab, returns to their home, watches her grieve, and then continues to wait long after she has left.
A woman mourns and a deceased man lingers. Drawing upon ideas as old as humanity, there's little else to the narrative than that. It's an easy plot gets an obvious gimmick to go with it, with Affleck spending the bulk of the film wearing a costume you probably donned as a kid. Emotionally and intellectually, however, the second collaboration between writer-director David Lowery and the two stars of his debut feature Ain't Them Bodies Saints couldn't be more intricate. Like standing under a sheet to jokingly taunt those around you, physically covering up the anxiety-inducing nature of mortality in the process, sometimes the simplest expressions of complex thoughts and feelings are the most effective.
While everything that appears on screen seems straightforward — the bed linen attire, the feature's box-like Academy aspect ratio, the use of hard cuts to jump from one scene to another — watching A Ghost Story isn't the same as experiencing it. The film is as much about what happens inside of the audience as it is about what happens around C himself. As Affleck, who proves a skilled actor even under a sheet, observes new residents come and go, buildings rise and fall, and time swirl around, audiences are reminded of all the places that once meant something to them, and the people to whom those places will be forever tied. The sensation that creeps over you when you drive past your childhood home, revisit your old favourite bar, or walk past a site where something life-changing once happened to you: that's the sensation that A Ghost Story perfects.
Ultimately, Lowery understands that it's people, rather than places, to whom ethereal memories cling, and that it's mourning that causes our minds to forever link individuals and experiences with certain spaces. Much, much more than just the human equivalent of a ghost emoji standing in an Instagram snap, A Ghost Story is moody and minimalistic in exactly the right ways, and one of the most astute depictions of grief to reach cinemas in a long time.