A Ghost Story uses slow cinema to posit a world in which a ghost is more haunted than the living. The result is a highly contemplative and original film.
“We build our legacy piece by piece, and maybe the whole world will remember you, or maybe just a couple of people, but you do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone.”
I didn’t expect a film featuring a voiceless ghost to contemplate life and the passage of time, but David Lowery’s A Ghost Story has deeper messaging than its short script would suggest. Lowery masterfully fits a larger-than-life story into a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the result is one of the most imaginative, original ghost stories in cinema. A Ghost Story posits a world in which a ghost is more haunted than the living. Time is a loop, and nothing but a deep longing for company lasts forever.
The film’s main characters—who remain unnamed but are listed in the cast as “C” (Casey Affleck) and “M” (Rooney Mara)—live a quaint life in a suburban ranch house. It’s charming enough for C to stay forever, but too remote and run down for M. The viewer is dropped into the midst of their lives as they pack boxes in hopes of moving away soon. One morning, M drags furniture out to the street, and finds her husband dead from a car accident just outside their house. The film then documents C as a ghost, watching time unravel: M finds love again and moves out, other families move into the house, and eventually it’s torn down and the area becomes a hospital. Then time resets back to the pre-colonial era, C longing even more to escape while struggling to remember the life he lived.
David Lowery’s stylistic choices in A Ghost Story are not like his in Pete’s Dragon or The Green Knight; here, he dives headfirst into slow cinema and transcendental styles. In his book, “Transcendental Style in Film,” Paul Schrader claims that transcendental style consists of “heightening the mundane” then delivering a Decisive Moment, an unexpected act or image, which “results in a stasis, an acceptance of parallel reality”. A Ghost Story pulls the afterlife down from the heavens and confines it to a small ranch house, literally throwing a large white sheet over the supernatural. From scene to scene, Lowery thrusts normalcy upon the viewer by virtue of what Schrader calls the “long take,” typically minutes-long shots with minimal movement or action.
A Ghost Story is infamous for one of these drawn out moments: M’s pie-eating scene. She comes home to see a friend left a pie and a letter of condolence after C’s death, eats a slice out of the dish, then decides to simply sink to the floor and eat the entire thing, C looming in the background the entire time. The five minute uncut scene highlights the mundane—simply eating food—with unrelenting scrutiny while simultaneously offering a striking portrayal of M’s grief. The film is riddled with minutes-long, slow, brooding shots like this; Lowery’s slow cinema makes an otherwise boring film highly impactful. We linger on every moment, invited to imagine ourselves in the characters’ place, experiencing what they do. Menial tasks like cleaning dishes, doing laundry, and listening to music become monumental explorations of humanity.
Due to Lowery’s long takes and C’s inability to talk as a ghost, the script in A Ghost Story is minimal. The longest verbal communication comes from a resident of C’s house long after M moves out: Will Oldham is listed in the cast as Prognosticator. He delivers a monologue about the earth’s eventual demise and the supposed meaning of life. It’s five minutes of highly concentrated nihilism, which is ironic, as C hears every word of it.
A Ghost Story is unlike most supernatural movies, due to its lo-fi approach and painstakingly slow moments, but perhaps the most insightful aspects of the film are those instances where the supernatural clashes with the material. C watches M mourn, listens to the Prognosticator speculate the answer to the universe and everything in it, and scratches continually at a wall in the house to find a note M left before leaving. The result is deeply resonant, the realization of death and the afterlife in far more tangible ways than we are accustomed to.
The film inverts the idea of “haunting.” C’s afterlife is not driven by revenge, but rather a desperate longing for company while trapped in the afterlife. After all is said and done, C’s desire isn’t the Prognosticator’s, “to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone.” The haunting part is that C was forced to stay. After lifetimes of waiting, searching, and brooding, C finally gets ahold of M’s note, reads it, and immediately vanishes—the long white sheet he was so long adorned with dropping to the floor. In the end, a piece of his past life propels him into the next.
A Ghost Story is now available to watch on digital and on demand.