A Ghost Story: Love in the Time of Death

**** (out of 4)

Anyone who’s been through childhood knows how it goes. In the middle of the night, somewhere in your house or apartment, something abruptly creaks or thumps. You turn the lights on, maybe check locks if you’re paranoid – but nothing turns up, no matter how hard you look. By the time you’re an adult, these moments usually mean little, and they’re easily forgotten. But if you really did have a childhood, you at some point probably came up with some kind of theory to explain all those noises away, whether that entailed bogeymen, mice, ghosts, or a combination of all three.

In A Ghost Story, writer-director David Lowery supplies his own explanation for the source of such noises: they’re movements of those spirits who cannot bear to abandon this world. At the beginning of the movie, Casey Affleck (good) and Rooney Mara (brilliant) play a young married couple whom we simply know as “C” and “M.” As far as we can tell, they live a simple life defined by a mixture of wordless arguments, gentle cuddles in bed…and, yes, weird thumps in the night. One day, however, C abruptly dies in a car accident right outside their house – and when we next see him, he’s become a ghost. Not, as you might expect, a CGI-infused wisp of air; rather, Affleck covered in a large white bed sheet, with two black holes where his eyes should be. When he moves, this “ghost” doesn’t float but literally drags himself and his bed sheet across the ground: tellingly, it almost looks as though he were a person stuck underneath a stubbornly irremovable veil.

The story eventually gets going when ghost C returns to his house and decides to watch M as she tries to move on after his death. And on a basic level, the first thing that catches your eye here is the brilliant way Lowery depicts the subjective nature of time. In the moments that directly follow C’s passing, Lowery ably deploys icily symmetrical set arrangements and long takes – at one point, we watch M for several minutes straight as she eats a pie – to suggest how heavy time feels to both M and ghost C in the wake of their separation. After M moves out and leaves ghost C to wander the house for eternity, however, the movie picks up the pace. It goes from showing the move-in of a new family to showing said family celebrating Christmas in mere seconds; later, when the story runs through all the people who subsequently come to call C’s house “home,” their outlines are usually blurred, as though time were moving too quickly to let us have a real look at them. For ghost C, we come to see, nothing is worth dwelling on sans M.

Beyond the style, the true wonders of this movie lie in its title – but not in the way you’d think. Yes, this is a “ghost story,” and in keeping with the spirit of that genre, C does use his otherworldly powers to scare a family into moving out of his house. Yet as a viewer, these sorts of scenes likely won’t alarm you that much. What instead makes you jump is the moment when the entrance of a bulldozer unexpectedly disrupts ghost C’s attempts to recover a note that M left in the crevice of a wall. When the sheet-covered ghost inhabiting the house neighboring C’s suddenly “dies” – the bed sheet abruptly falls to the ground like a popped balloon – after noting that “I don’t think anyone is coming.” When ghost C confronts a vision of a futuristic city constructed over his home, a city that, with its towering neon skyscrapers, has the eerie, isolating feel of Tokyo in Lost in Translation.

It’s no coincidence that all of these chilling moments involve the loss of some emotional connection or link with the past. The movie’s real ambition is to provide a portrayal of both our need to be remembered by others…and our inability to ever completely realize that longing. In this spirit, Lowery suggests that ghost C remains “alive” out of a simple yet unfulfilled desire to hang onto at least some vestige of his relationship with M; the ending, in a sense, depicts the moment when ghost C is finally made to confront the indelible divergences between desire and reality. Throughout all this, moreover, the distinctly non-CGI ghost design only lends greater heft to Lowery’s message: in the many shots in which ghost C is shown standing just inches away from an unknowing M, the physicality of Affleck’s presence aptly visceralizes the paradoxically simultaneous intimacy and distance that characterize their relationship. We may all seek companionship, but in Lowery’s sobering yet deeply poetic worldview, such longing is invariably tempered by the looming prospect of parting.

A Ghost Story is hardly flawless. If anything, several parts of it – the Tree of Life-worthy shots of outer space, the long, this-is-what-the-movie-is-about monologue that one character delivers midway through – smack of heavy-handedness. But the movie nevertheless constitutes a thought-provoking meditation on the close yet antagonistic relationship between love and death – two experiences that everyone goes through at some point. Scores of older films have dealt with concerns about mortality, and a lot of them have made a powerful case that various forms of beauty (love, art, etc.; see Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty) can serve as an antidote to such worries. In its finest moments, A Ghost Story stands out for its willingness to ask just one question in response to those movies: won’t beauty perish, too? It’s a simple query, but it’s not easy to resolve – and that’s the exact reason why this film, like a true ghost story, will haunt you long after it’s over.

***

A Ghost Story (2017)

Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara

Running Time: 87 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for brief language and a disturbing image.”

Produced by: Toby Halbrooks, James Johnston, Adam Donaghey

Written and Directed by: David Lowery