Released 2017. Director: David Lowery
AFTER A MAN DIES, HIS PRESENCE LINGERS... A PERFECT PREMISE for a ghost story of any kind you could imagine. The one that writer-director David Lowery gives us here is unlike any other story of haunting or paranormal. A Ghost Story is a contemplation on the nature of existence, connection and the power of love that draws us to a place.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a couple simply called C and M in the credits. They live in a small old house in a suburb somewhere, its precise location is not important although the central idea of a place where they build their home together is consequential. This is where C returns to when he dies in a car accident, which occurs very early on.
In a scene that’s more suited to a jump-scare horror movie than a thoughtful indie, C’s body rises from the hospital slab under a big white sheet and walks among the living. The Halloween costume, complete with two holes cut out for eyes, might induce sniggle for a minute at its Scooby-Doo treatment. Admittedly a risky but shrewd and bold decision by the filmmakers. Once we are done chuckling and get past this silly visual construct, the ghost in sheets quickly becomes an indispensable guide. He exists for the benefit of the audience, a visual entity to denote C’s presence in the story. A silent character always hanging around and soon we see the story through his eyes.
C comes home to find M bereft, alone, in a daze of grief – Rooney Mara has a long scene where she blankly devours an entire pie. Mara’s performance here is crucial. With C standing passively in a corner under a sheet, it’s the sight of M in gloom quietly mourning that firmly anchors the emotions. If she doesn’t convince us at this point, the movie will fall apart into a farce.
Lowery’s delicate tonal shifts into a pensive meditation and his subtle direction lead us to the heart of the story. C has come home, he’s also adrift and weighed down all at once. C starts to flit through time; or is it time passing through him?
One or the other, time has no meaning for a ghost. He relives his moments in the house. He sees his life with M as they settle in. He sees himself working on his music. He sees M going to work, coming home. He also sees M moving out and moving on with her life. He shares the same space with a young family. He walks among his house full of partygoers. He finds himself wandering through a meeting room in a skyscraper. He sees neon signs and holographic projections on highrises in a futuristic cityscape. He sees a pioneer family building a house from the ground up. He sees them being murdered, and their decomposing bodies. He stands there as his house is being bulldozed. He is simply floating through time, past, present and future all at once, always at the same place, the environment changing around him.
Even though C is always shrouded, his emotions are perceptible. It’s rather incredible, when you think about it, that we feel for a character we can’t really see. As time passes, the ghost grows sad. If you look closely, it’s expressed in the shape of his ‘eyes’.
As he watches M leave their house the last time, we feel his helplessness knowing he’ll never see her again. He lashes out at the family who moves in afterwards, flinging dinner plates like a poltergeist, not so much at the new occupants but at his own sense of loss. Most of all, he is compelled by a need to find a note that M has left hidden in a crack in the wall, as much to find out what she has written as it is to get the very last thing remains that connects them together.
Through the window C sees someone just like him, a ghost in a sheet in the house next door. This other ghost has been waiting for someone for so long, he/she no longer remembers who it is. Later, in a poignant moment, the neighbour ghost finally gives up when it’s clear the loved one is not coming back.
In this mostly silent and wordless movie, the person who talks the most is an anonymous guy at a party full of college kids with a monologue on how, in a very long time from now, the Earth and indeed the whole universe will end. For C, his earthly life has already ended. Yet the irony is he’s forever present, a silent witness to the history of the last place he spent with his beloved.
A Ghost Story may feel light as a feather but I think it’s a beautiful meditation on love and loss. It’s also rich in emotive strength, deep in its reach and liberatingly cathartic at the end of C’s timeless journey, when he is released from eternal loneliness.
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