Film Review: The haunting reality of ‘A Ghost Story’ is a gut-punch of emotion

There comes a moment in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story where a sheet covered-hand knocks a stack of books off of a shelf, and we can see clearly a couple of the books lying on the floor. Scenes like this are typically easter-eggs for attentive viewers, where directors can insert their own personal influences into a film and pay small homage to them without overwhelming the story, and Lowery’s up to something similar. On one hand, we have Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, which uses ghosts as bits and pieces in the composition of its magical realist setting, and it’s easy to see the pastoral influences of Marquez’s work in Lowery’s other films. Yet lying open on the floor, for us to catch a glimpse of, is a collection of Virginia Woolf’s short stories, to a page from “A Haunted House” and, indeed, a quote from that story is also used as the film’s epigraph.

That melancholy story, of empty spaces robbed of meaning, of the bizarre stretch and squish of time itself, ultimately winds up being the greatest inspiration for this film, and it’s hard not to say that Lowery himself has pulled off the impossible — he’s managed to make an utterly devastating film about a man under a sheet walking around a house. A Ghost Story is a cinematic gut-punch of emotion, one that’ll have you thinking deeply about the amount of time you have in this world and sob uncontrollably at the realization that, yes, it is, in fact, running out.

Minor spoilers follow.

A Ghost Story sees Lowery reuniting with two of his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stars, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, who play a couple in an unspecified midwestern town, only identified by their first initials in the credits. They share a small house together in the country, and Affleck, a musician, is deeply in love with the place, and Mara wants them to leave, so that they can move on and do other, bigger, things with their lives. The house is also haunted, it seems — plates and frames occasionally go flying, which jolts them awake during the night and endows Affleck’s character with a sense of wonder about the mystery of the place. And then, one afternoon, he’s killed in a car accident. Lowery handles this scene and the following one, where Mara goes to the hospital to identify her husband’s body, with a quiet and stark detachment from the events unfolding in front of him, emptied of melodrama entirely. There’s just a painful lack, as if Terrence Malick had decided to shoot the intro to Peter Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Noughts, and that lack persists through a lengthy pause on the aftermath of her identification. The static shot of Affleck’s body, on the slab underneath a white sheet, holds for two or three minutes, and is, I imagine, where members of the audience may get uncomfortable, with the only sound coming from the hum from the flourescent lights on screen and the audience themselves — sort of a ‘4:33’ of upsetting egg-shell quiet.

And then he sits up, under the sheet, and a pair of black cut-out eyes form on the fabric, and Affleck’s spirit wanders home.

The Ghost itself is a striking and gorgeously upsetting image, and I imagine it must have come out of Lowery’s mindset on the set of Pete’s Dragon, where he was inundated with the imagery of childhood and decided to apply it to a real and desperate fear in a way that is devastating. The visuals, here crafted by Andrew Droz Palermo, cinematographer and co-director of the brilliant documentary Rich Hill (it’s on Netflix, and you most definitely should watch it after seeing A Ghost Story) are gorgeous (though that would be obvious to anyone who’s seen the trailer), placed beautifully inside the 1:33:1 aspect ratio that renders much of the screen a boxy frame. I loved the textures of the fabric itself, from the way the folds change when the Ghost walks, to the way that it accumulates dirt and grime, to the loving care that Palermo puts in capturing the tactile feel of the material just through his framing and focus, to the constant usage of a sheet as metaphor, which covers Mara in an early scene in an eerie and beautiful bit of foreshadowing. He also deftly handles the film’s few chronological shifts; as the Ghost haunts the past and future inhabitants of the house and the land that it’s on, as he can’t seem to leave the perimeter.

In a way, A Ghost Story is as much the story of that small parcel of land where Affleck’s house once stood as it is his. It gradually unfolds as a journey through that space’s history and the tragedy of the moment — that the transient moment in which we occupy a certain place will inevitably fade away, and time will pass on and on regardless of whether we want it to or not. It evokes both Little Big Man and the most recent season of Twin Peaks in doing so (given that both Lynch and Lowery apparently see cityscapes as nightmarish perversions of nature), but is overwhelmingly and gorgeously reminiscent of Richard McGuire’s deeply upsetting comic Here, in which he takes the same angle from the interior of a room in a house and goes from its initial origins all the way into a post-human hellscape, teasing out stories and moments from the occupants, who we only are ever able to glimpse in the briefest of vignettes.

Lowery’s approach is similar in it’s non-chronological sequence of events, and it’s used to evoke a similar un-stuckness in history, but as Affleck is our point of view and a character in the story itself, there’s a differing dynamism that’s used effectively here, as he haunts other occupants of the house. And he’s fantastic in the role, outside of the sheet and inside of it — the relationship between him and Mara wouldn’t work if he didn’t put in as much effort as she did. He’s warm and loving in their moments together, and his excitement about their home is endearing in a way that’s unexpected, and when he’s in the sheet, he runs the gambit of audience-provided emotion but steers us along well with his presence in the scenes, from melancholic to threatening and back again.

There’s been a number of hot takes about the #problematic nature of these haunts, as the Ghost is angered when he sees his wife bring home another man after his passing, and takes out a the measure of his grief on a spanish-speaking Latino family that moves into his space after his wife leaves for good, but they’re garbage if you can extend the slightest bit of empathy for the Ghost and his predicament. He’s an ethereal being trapped in a house that’s ever-changing, limited to observing and barely affecting the world that’s around him, watching the most important person to him move on from his memory. It’s understandable why people would have a reaction like this to his frustration and anguish over Mara’s moving on — the movie’s not shy about exploring her grief over her husband’s passing, and the Ghost witnesses all of this. This is, of course, expressed the much-ballyhooed scene of her character demolishing a pie that an oblivious and slightly cruel realtor leaves for her in their home, but there’s so much more to the scene than that alone. In fact, the way Mara handles the run-up to the whole scene is just masterful, from the way her face sours as she pauses at the doorway, stunned by the emptiness and silence of her home without Affleck there. And the pie-eating itself might be the most anguished and original depiction of the soul-crushing emptiness of grief that’s graced the silver screen in years.

On the other hand, the family are truly victims of his fiery agony, and it’s unfair to suggest that Lowery isn’t aware of the horrible trauma his main character is inflicting on this family; it’s directly a source of shame, and Affleck’s ghost is visibly changed by how horrible he makes the encounter (there’s also something significantly scarier about sad, once-human ghosts inflicting this terror through temper tantrums, rather than ethereal demons and serial killers that we typically find haunting houses in film). The language barrier is an extension of this alienation and frustration; he’s thrown into seeing the same space completely reused by different people in a different way. With regards to all of this, it’s also worth noting that Affleck died in a car accident and that roughly every scenario of you peacefully letting your spouse move along and your home get destroyed and your affirmed status as Friendly Ghost all depends on having closure and satisfaction with your death. He receives none of that here, until the house itself is destroyed in by construction, and is able to be fully unmoored from that location. Ask yourself this: Would you really be cool watching your family move on without you? Would you be okay with observing the passage of time and seeing every trace of your existence wiped away? And for the most part, Lowery succeeds brilliantly in pressing these questions on the audience in a mere 90 minutes, while searching for his own answer.

There are some slight false notes, but none strong enough to push the film off the tightrope, as a trapeze artist can wobble and have his balance challenged and still manage to cross to the other side unscathed. For instance, the song that Affleck’s character spends his time in meatspace working on suffers from the same try-hard overcompensation that is usually reserved for screenwriters trying to make their novelist protagonist sound like a real writer when he reads his work, and an appearance from a nihilistic Will Oldham is almost comically overwritten and vaguely out of place in such a quiet and pensive film — but Lowery’s able to string it together tonally and make it sing. And from his efforts, we’re rewarded with one of the year’s best films, standing shoulders above the mass in an already-crowded field of favorites, an utterly devastating lament of time’s passage and the ephemeral beauty that we call existence.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.

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