In this singular exploration of legacy, love, loss, and the enormity of existence, a recently deceased, white-sheeted ghost returns to his suburban home to try to reconnect with his bereft wife.
A Ghost Story is a 2017 supernatural drama written and directed by David Lowery. It stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a couple living in a suburban Texas home who are making plans to move. They are awoken one night by a noise they cannot explain and shortly afterwards Affleck’s character (simply credited as “C”) dies in a car accident. His spirit, appearing as a bedsheet ghost, returns home, a place he becomes anchored to.
Despite appearances, the film goes beyond the notion of a spirit trying to reconnect with his wife rather quickly, in a way that I really liked. The way a ghostly existence is portrayed here is very somber, allowing for very little in the way of actual, well, existence. He is able to affect the world around him in small ways, but for the most part he is an unseen monolithic figure, watching and silently (for the most part) reacting to the world of the living around him.
His wife goes through many recognizable stages of grief and he tries to be ever-present for her during this time, but he is sadly nothing more than a phantom she does not realize is there. C is distraught to find her eventually moving on and following through with the move they were planning, leaving him and the house behind. To commemorate her departure, she leaves behind a small note folded up and slipped into a crack in the wall, which she then paints over. His desire to learn what she wrote seems to anchor him to the location. He watches the world around him change as people come and go, all the while he is fixated on reaching the note in the wall.
The passing of time is something I found well portrayed in this film, particularly with how C perceives it. The first act of the film consists of a lot of shots that simply hold for an uncomfortable amount of time with little to no dialogue, a tendency I think will turn a fair amount of people off. I did find that they did a good job of getting information across in this minimalist way, though, especially in showing intimacy between C and M (Rooney Mara) early on. What makes it more interesting to me is how these lingering shots disappear entirely as the film progresses.
In life it often feels like time is just slipping away or flying by, but living is nevertheless the longest thing we will ever do and individual moments can feel eternal. These early moments of the film capture that feeling well, with some key points in the aftermath of C’s death highlighting this for M especially. The longer C is a spirit, however, the more his perception of time seems to falter as he is no longer bound by the same rules. At many points he simply turns around and dramatic changes take place in the house, as if simply zoning out for what feels like a moment for him can actually be days, weeks, or even years passing.
I think it is up to interpretation how much you think C is cognisant of what is going on as time passes, especially since editing is a factor in moving the story forward in time as well, but the ways certain scenes flow into each other without a hard cut leads me to believe that those specific moments are more “sped up” for him. I enjoy the way it highlights how time might work for a consciousness outside of its usual confines, regardless of how you look at it.
I saw a lot of this as a long reflection on existence and just how temporary a lot of life really is. We see how things were for him, how they change after he is gone, and where the world is going, all of it swallowing up the relatively little life of this musician and his wife, who was widowed young and moved on. He’s such a blank canvas as a character in the film that it’s hard not to project oneself onto his situation in a way I found effective.
In one of the most dialogue heavy scenes, while a party is taking place within the house, one of the attendees begins waxing about humanity’s desire to leave a lasting legacy and the ultimate futility of it all. It was a bit on the nose, but helped to hammer some of the more existential themes of the film home all the same. What I found oddly comforting about it, despite the confidently spoken uncomfortable truths, was the fact that this is a ghost story. While he goes on about humanity’s eventual disintegration on a cosmic scale a ghost is listening to him. There is an afterlife in this story, and a Beyond even further from C’s spectral existence that we glimpse shortly after he escapes his cadaver. He may be fixed in a somewhat gloomy existence for the time being himself, yearning to learn something that ties him to the world of the living, but there is still the underlying truth that there is more than we know after death, even for him.
A Ghost Story is not especially long, but it is slow and ponderous about ordinary people who lead (led) ordinary lives, and I could see this pace easily being a problem for some people. If you’ve got the patience for it though I highly recommend giving it a watch. I wish there was a little more to it—it’s not very deep on plot or character—but it still manages to hit home with a lot of emotional depth about life, loss, leaving your mark, and the ways the world moves on.
My rating: 3.5 out of 5