A GHOST STORY
Director: David Lowery
Runtime: 90 minutes
We all have that place that our memories branch out to. What would happen if circumstances beyond our control ripped the fabric of normalcy right out of ourselves and landed us on the other side of reality — the spirit world, a place called limbo? Would we go back to the reality we knew that can never be, see its new tenants, perhaps cohabit in an uneasy agreement with them (while hoping they don’t encroach on our own personal space or the remnants of it)? Would we wander the world seeking for our loved ones, or wait until whatever unresolved conflict would finally mete itself out and set us free to move on?
It is said that a ghost isn’t a spirit at all, but a memory that lingers, an entity that doesn’t know where to go. Nothing could be truer than the case of C, (Casey Affleck), a man in his thirties married contentedly to M (Rooney Mara), living in a quiet little paradise. While their verbal exchanges can be brittle, you get the sense, from a loving exchange following a series of rappings heard around their home (which turns out to be nothing), that this is a couple imperfectly in tune with themselves, loving and living a fulfilled life full of dreams and small joys.
An accident (of which we get to see its aftermath) takes place, and we soon see M identifying C’s body laying on a gurney in the morgue. The camera, which has already established in long, uninterrupted shots the bond and love that both C and M have for each other, continues to gaze over C’s body. Slowly, C rises, still underneath the sheet covering him, and we can almost gauge his own surprise as to how did he get here. Soon, we are following his steps as he makes his way through the hospital, through the fields, and finally, back home, still covered in a white sheet with black, pleading holes for eyes — and I have never seen eyes more expressive than the ones Affleck’s costume projects.
However, instead of pursuing what we thought would be an inevitable climactic scene reminiscent of Ghost, A Ghost Story has other tricks up its sleeves. C, now a textbook ghost haunting his own house, is seen always in the background, silent, never reaching out. One impressive long take shows M coming home from work, grabbing a pie left as a comfort gift by a friend, sitting on the kitchen floor, and angrily gobbling it up while C simply observes from a calculated distance. The silence in this scene is enormous — it threatens to consume the movie whole. One wonders how many parties, dinners, romantic evenings happened in this now dead space where only sadness lives, and it goes on and on until she frantically scrambles out to barf it up outside.
M eventually meets someone, and C is none too happy, and manifests the first of a couple of poltergeist moments. However, she leaves the house, and if the sight of a forlorn ghost standing at the window, seeing his last link to the living world depart forever doesn’t get your tear-ducts going, nothing will.
Other tenants move in: a Latina mother with her two children who are the only ones to actually either see the ghost, or experience notable poltergeist activity. Will Oldham pops up later in a party scene where they discuss the brevity of mankind and the universe. And yet, the ghost lingers, unnoticed, undisturbed. In the meantime, the ghost strikes up bits of telepathic conversation with a neighbor, who seems female from the flowery sheet she’s covered in. She’s waiting for someone, but has forgotten. Not C: C still pines for M, and you see him dutifully scratching at walls, looking for notes she left behind. Soon, the house is a former wreck of itself, and almost on cue after Oldham’s prediction, the only bang that transpires comes in the form of a bulldozer. Soon, we’re moving into the far future as development takes over, and then the far past as time loops in on itself to the days of settlers . . . and then back to the moment C and M first come into the house.
I have always wanted paranormal pictures to tackle the ghost story genre not as one to cause scares, but to explore and perhaps seek closure. I never thought that such an exploration would be as emotionally devastating and profound as Lowery’s film. To experience an unending sense of loss and then re-experience it again as time loops around itself under the guise of a classic bed-sheet ghost is a gamble but one that pays off: had we seen Affleck throughout, we might not have been as open to identify with the situation. Now, Affleck under a sheet (I assume he was always under a sheet) is another story: his ghost becomes a blank canvas where we place everything we know about ourselves, our memories, our fears of death and loss and pain and the possibility that perhaps there is nothing else. I believe — no, I am confident — that A Ghost Story will be a movie to be seen over and over as a study of grief, and what happens when a person is unable, or unwilling, to let go.