“A Ghost Story” is true indie art house cinema, which means you’re either going to hate it or love it. I love it. This heartbreaking story of a man (Casey Affleck) and his wife (Rooney Mara) isn’t a cheap jump scare horror thriller: it’s a complex, dreamlike journey through the past, present and future, and one that makes you question your very existence in the enormity of the universe
Affleck’s character (we never learn his name) dies and instead of choosing the light-filled door into the great beyond, he opts to walk the Earth in the white sheet that was used to cover him at the morgue. He quickly learns that he cannot leave his house, becoming imprisoned in his former life as he stands day after day watching his grieving wife cope with the unbearable loss of her young husband. In flashbacks we see that Affleck’s character had a strong attachment to this particular house while his wife begged and pleaded for them to move. The physical place mattered so much that even as a ghost, he can’t bear to leave. But after his wife moves out and moves on and as he remains trapped in that same space for decades and through many transformations, it becomes clear that he’s haunting the house and not his partner. It’s a man who is hanging on forever, afraid of letting go.
He sits and waits in the house as his wife brings home a new suitor (he responds by causing the lights to flicker), scares a young single mother and her two kids out of the home (when he makes their dishes go flying), listens as a group of squatters waxes poetic about the desire to leave a lasting legacy (when in reality we’ll all die when the universe implodes on itself and we disappear into nothingness), and watches as the home is eventually bulldozed to the ground and a high-rise is erected in its place.
The second half of the film grows more abstract, especially when the ghost travels back in time to the days of early settlers. There’s a lot left to interpretation here, but it’ll have your brain working overtime. Nothing is really right nor wrong as you’re challenged to find your own meaning.
This is truly a poetic, spiritual movie about grief and loss that relies heavily on imagery and very rarely on dialogue. It’s a film that you feel and experience, one that is rewarding if you truly let yourself be immersed in its atmospheric power. Everything about this film is hypnotic in a sense, from the realization that we all will one day cease to exist to the sensation of a fluid time and space where days and hours lose all meaning. The film moves slowly but it has such a powerful visual rhythm that is never feels slow. (Yes, even the three minute scene of a grief-stricken woman gorging herself on a chocolate pie).
Affleck spends most of the movie hidden beneath a white sheet with ghastly cutout eye holes. Never did this feel like a silly idea to me. The simplicity of the symbol becomes its biggest strength, and the shots of this eerie draped white sheet wandering through the afterlife creates a powerful symbolism. What’s truly brilliant about it all is that with this eerie, beautiful blank canvas and only simple body gestures, most everything is left up to the audience to project onto the character. Every person will have their own different read and take on this story, and that’s what makes it all the more profound. Add Daniel Hart’s mournful, melancholy score to the mix and the distress becomes even more palpable.
Director David Lowery shoots the film in a small 1.33:1 aspect ratio, making the project feel like a vintage home movie. It works in more ways than one, but clearly conveys the idea of a person trapped and unable to let go of their former life. He as a remarkable understanding of visually expressing grief and despair creatively, and one of the best scenes in the film is a heartbreaking encounter with the ghost across the street. It’s so elegantly sad that it punched me in the gut (I still can’t stop seeing those images in my head and I doubt I’ll ever forget it).
This is a sad, haunting, original film that has affected me like no other this year — and that’s the sign of something truly special.