A Ghost Story Will Haunt You in Deep Ways


Directed by David Lowery
A24, 92 minutes, R (for no good reason whatsoever)

We often use the words "film" and "movie" as synonyms. They can be, but film is actually the medium and is more versatile. When film is used to tell a story, we call it a "movie," but that's inadequate for something like A Ghost Story, which is filled with non-linear imagery, alternative realities, and eschatological questioning. It does feature a ghost, but its spooky qualities are far beyond that of garden-variety horror movies. We're talking the sort of haunting that will leave you shattered. Director David Lowery tackles the scariest thing imaginable: What happens when we die?

Actress Jeanne Moreau may not be your idea of a philosopher, but she once uttered these wise words: "It's just as idiotic to say there is no life after death as it is to say there is one." Gaze into the sky and tell me why humankind is special. Alternatively, how does one reconcile the concept of eternity with assertions from physics that at some point, all suns, stars, and galaxies will vanish into black holes? What if the Buddhists are right and Nirvana is a state of nothingness? Meaning is on trial in A Ghost Story, a film in which the characters don't even have names.

A Ghost Story will remind you of films such as The Tree of Life; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Melancholia; Wings of Desire; and even Truly, Madly, Deeply, though our ghost can't comfort the grieving lover he leaves behind. The film stars—more in a celestial than a celebrity sense—Casey Affleck, who spends most of the film wordlessly wandering under a shroud. We first meet him living and breathing in bed next to Rooney Mara, where they cuddle in near silence avoiding discussion of another one they did not have earlier. Suddenly the living room piano emits a loud discordant sound, though no one else is in the house and nothing visible has fallen on the keys. If these things sound meta, add to the list that Mara's skin is pale, luminous, and cadaverous, but it is Affleck who the next day lies in the morgue. His sheeted body—or is it his spirit?—rises from the gurney, walks down the hospital corridor toward a bright light, but pauses and the portal closes. Then things get really weird. When we next see him, his spectral self stands in his kitchen watching Mara angrily stab and devour an entire pie in an attempt to strike at her consuming grief. The scene is drawn out, silent, poignant, and simultaneously grotesque and beautiful.

Is Affleck in purgatory? Maybe, but the film raises questions about ante and postmortem existence, themes expounded upon later in the film when a future party pooper (Will Oldham) delivers a lecture on the inevitable demise of the cosmos. It's the only part of the film that has more than a few words of dialogue. Some party-goers listen; others continue to make merry. After all, what more can be said about a void? The ghost witnesses this scene, as he does other inhabitants and events that take place in the house after Mara departs it. Is it because he is tethered to this plot of land? Is it simply that because time is irrelevant to a spirit, or something else? Many readings are possible, but it put me in mind of Einstein's discovery that time and space bend. An offshoot of that is Eternalism, the postulate that past, present, and future coexist—perhaps in other dimensions, perhaps in repeating loops. The film itself is circular in construction and moves from present to future to past, and back to the present. A dimensional shift is suggested in the meta of all meta scenes in which Affleck's ghost momentarily sees his own ghost in a room with his living self.

What are we to make of all this? That's probably up to you. You could put a Buddhist spin on it, but you can also make the case for everything from existentialism, nihilism, and Cartesian dualism. There are also hints of the African concepts of sasha and zamani that assert that the dead exist in limbo as long as anyone alive remembers them, then they move on. Or maybe it's all just a matter of physics. Just two things are clear to me. First, though death is universal, this is not a film for everyone. To appreciate it you need to put on your hard thinking caps and be prepared to confront Lovecraft-like unseen fears. If you're not willing, join the merrymakers and tune out impending doom.

Second, A Ghost Story is visually astonishing. Director James Lowery and choreographer Andrew Droz Palermo provide new angles from which to contemplate big things—literally. Tight shots combine with slow zoom outs to create heart-rending moments such as the folds of Affleck's shroud and his twisted figure melding seamlessly into Mara's sleeping body entwined in sheets. In another, Mara lies on her back, stretches, and her fingers inch upward across the floor, where they almost touch the hem of Affleck's spectral garment. Later, high and low angle shots combine to make scenes cramped and claustrophobic from a human point of view, but wide open and expansive from a ghostly perspective. Others induce vertigo; still others skew normal perspective—such as having the ghost fall upside down from a skyscraper, yet with the grace of a bird in flight.

This is one the longest movie reviews I have ever posted in part because of the subject matter, and in part because I haven't stopped thinking about this the film since viewing it. Perhaps what I've written strikes you as a lot of incoherent mumbo-jumbo masquerading as art. It might be, but I think it is a near masterpiece marred only by logical inconsistencies in it that have nothing to do with its irresolvable subjects. The ghost isn't seen by the living, yet it's inferred one small boy does so. Why? If the ghost is non-corporeal, how can he hurl dishes around a room, scratch at door frames, or turn doorknobs? Why would a ghost even use a door? But given that he does, why is he stuck to this one place? Why does he defy some laws of physics but conform to others? Why choose just one moment to be malevolent?

Maybe these are the wrong questions to ask. Perhaps the point of making a near-silent film is to force us to contemplate the ineffable without the clutter of words. Do we know what's under our own shrouds? Is it a new light in the cosmos, just stardust, or nothing at all? This is a strange, quirky, ambiguous film that back in the 1960s would have labeled a "mind-fucker." Wait for the end. Is the reveal satisfying, or the most terrifying thing you can imagine. Work it out for yourself. This is a film, not a movie.

Rob Weir

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