Writer-director David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is a contemplative tone poem on the vast expanses of time, captured in a single relationship between two people. As the two main characters reach a turning point about where they are going to live, a car accident removes one of them from the equation – except that it doesn’t. After the body is identified and the sheet pulled back, the body erects itself, walks out of the morgue, and starts observing.
This is a strange kind of plot. Nothing really happens, but we hang on each moment. Casey Affleck plays C, and Rooney Mara plays M, and the two linger around their house, discontent. C loves the place; it has an old-timey kind of familiarity to it, like finding your childhood home again. M is less impressed; she feels stuck in a rut, like settling on a restaurant to prevent a fight. It’s not clear why each of them feels this way, but when C is killed, it doesn’t seem to matter too much anymore.
The rest of the film features Casey Affleck in a sheet, a cliché of a ghost, observing the living. He watches M agonize through his death, broken by the loss. In a particularly brilliant scene, a friend brings a pie to M in one of those vain attempts to provide some modicum of assistance during a terrible time. It’s clear that this pie isn’t enough, but it’s also clear that M hasn’t been able to eat anything in days. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, you have to seize any appetite that shows itself. So M eats. And eats. And eats. And sits down in front of the stove. And eats. Eventually, it’s all too much, and she rushes to the bathroom to throw up. It is the perfect distillation of grief – tortuous, simple, and practically bland.
The entire look of the film delivers meaning. From start to finish, the movie is shown in a square aspect ratio and rounded, fuzzy edges. This is not a common way to show a movie, and it immediately registers. So, what’s the point? Visually, it gives the film a retro and personal kind of feel. There’s an intimacy associated with this display, like we’re watching some home videos. One also has to consider the abject strangeness of it all – how many films have you watched with a square aspect ratio? This immediately thrusts A Ghost Story into the realm of the supernatural, the strange, the fantastic.
This results in a distinct appearance for the film, and there are a number of visual techniques used to support the overall feel. Once C passes, the passage of time becomes more haphazard than linear. Sometimes, a shot/countershot technique is used to show the abrupt passage of time, with days or decades passing in between the cuts. Other moments are drawn out forever, with C observing the new denizens of his old house.
The film is almost without dialogue, especially once C passes. People still speak to each other around him, but he never utters another word (except to a second ghost, through ingenious subtitles). Except for a few philosophical diatribes, most of what matters in A Ghost Story is what you see on the screen.
However, A Ghost Story makes extensive use, especially two pieces: one of C’s composition called I Get Overwhelmed (though actually a song by Dark Rooms), and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The former is meant to showcase the personal feelings between C and M (and the potential dissolution of their romance), and the latter is used to make a philosophical point about legacy, meaning, and the absolute vastness of time.
And there’s the rub: as subtle as A Ghost Story professes to be, there is a five minute stretch in the middle of the film where a nobody character explicitly explains one of the major ideas of the film: time conquers all. In an attempt to disprove the notion that we are all trying to establish some legacy, this man describes a scenario where even Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony passes into antiquity, forgotten. This is the fate of all who walk this Earth – and eventually even the Earth itself.
The question then becomes: what stance does A Ghost Story take on this fundamental existential question? Is everything we do meaningless because it doesn’t last and will eventually be forgotten? Or, do even the simplest kindnesses reverberate throughout the universe? I believe A Ghost Story has a clear stance based on the climax of the film, but it could be interpreted a number of different ways.
Perhaps that’s what makes A Ghost Story a valuable piece of art. It stretches a simple story about a sad ghost over this classic existential question. The film then shows itself to be a quiet tone-poem about the absurd lengthiness of time, and the struggle we all go through in order to make our trip through it mean something special – if not for the universe, then at least for us.