REVIEW: A Ghost Story is a meditative look at haunting and hauntedness (starring a man in a white sheet)

Ghost Story
It seems silly, doesn’t it? The image of a man in an oversized version of the most rudimentary children’s costume: a plain white bed-sheet with eye-holes cut in it.

It’s also one that, in the context of A Ghost Story, becomes strangely haunting.

Written and directed by David Lowery1, the film reunites him with the stars of his 2013 debut, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play C and M, a strained but affectionate couple who live in a ranch-style bungalow in rural Texas.

Set back from the road, it contains, among other things, a small upright piano and is subject to the occasional unexplained phenomenon: shimmers in the air, bangs in the night.  Then C dies suddenly, unexpectedly,2 and comes back as a ghost. Having turned down passage into the next world, which manifests as a door of light, he returns to the home they shared and which he now proceeds silently to haunt.

Obscured entirely by the trailing sheet, Affleck, in a vanity-free pseudo-performance3 becomes a blank slate onto which we project loneliness, anger; whatever the situation suggests. The second film this year in which the actor plays someone singularly unable to move on4

Unable to interact, or even make her aware of his presence, C has to stand by and watch M; first in her grief, then, almost more heartbreakingly – for him, certainly – her new life acquires a normalcy. Not too much later, she moves on, literally, and C, seemingly unable to follow, stays put. And there he remains, for a long time. Those eye-holes, impenetrably dark themselves, seem to stare into the void, as the years skip on – sometimes subtly, sometimes not –5, new tenants come and go, and he endures; alone.6

Lowery treats his premise seriously but not self-seriously.7 Nobody passes obliviously through C with a ‘phloop’. Nor does he, to our knowledge, ever take a shortcut through a wall. Being dead it seems is much like being alive; only no one knows you’re there. C is, to all intents and purposes, alive; just un-ageing, un-eating, -sleeping, ignored, and under a sheet.8

Lowery’s camera is often locked off, content to watch scenes play themselves out to their natural conclusion – intimately documenting a couple’s lazy intimacy in bed, or M’s un-histrionic in the face of overwhelming grief; which takes the form a minutes-long single take of a woman working her way through an entire chocolate tart.9 Sometimes the camera drifts slowly through corridors that are seemingly empty till we discover C standing in a corner, watching, perhaps waiting.

A meditation on themes as personal as loss and as grand as time itself, A Ghost Story never pontificates10, keeping itself relatively self-contained – again, often literally. While recalling works as brilliant and varied as Olivier Assayas’ tonally-unpredictable Personal Shopper and Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Interstellar11, A Ghost Story is entirely its own apparition: an odd, elliptical indie mood piece about what it means to live and what we leave behind.

It may take you a while to get on the same melancholy wavelength12, but, if you do, suffice to say, you may never see Halloween in the same way again.

  1. Who last year managed to turn Disney’s remake of their own Pete’s Dragon – the 1971 original of which is unashamedly goofy – into something golden and timeless.
  2. If not to us. It is, after all, sort of inherent to the premise.
  3. To start with, Affleck is his usual leonine self: loosely muscled, mane-like hair/beard. Once the sheet goes on, all we get is vague physicality shuffling beneath the sheet. Even Tom Hardy usually gets his eyes to work with!
  4. The first, of course, being his performance in Manchester By The Sea, which deservedly – however controversially – won him the Academy Award for Best Actor. There his character was absent despite being present; here it’s the inverse.
  5. Cobwebs around on a now-empty hanging light fitting
  6. Apart from the occasional sight of another ghost, presumably a woman (though played by Lowery himself), in a floral sheet, and whose eventual disappearance was, for me, the film’s most moving incident.
  7. He even shows a nice comedic sense in subtitling the ghosts’ silent interaction.
  8. C’s ability to influence the world around him seems, in true Ghost logic, to depend on his emotional state. Sometimes lights flicker; sometimes, on very rare occasions, he might hurl crockery
  9. Mara shows remarkable restraint in underplaying.
  10. Unlike his forbear Terrence Malick – to whose Badlands Lowery’s debut owed such a debt to – proves it’s possible to be transcendental and still have a narrative.
  11. It also leaps from Blade Runner to Days of Heaven in a single cut.
  12. Ironically it wasn’t until the dead C sat up on the autopsy table from beneath the sheet that the film really clicked with me.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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