Written and directed by David Lowery, A Ghost Story is simple: a man dies an9d his ghost returns to inhabit the house he shared with his wife. The film stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Jason and Lee review.
I remember seeing the poster for David Lowery’s film and being curious and somewhat consumed with what the film would be. As plain as the premise may sound, A Ghost Story raises questions about storytelling, time, and identity. How you view and process the film will either lead you to try to intellectualize what you’re feeling, or cause you to become haunted and possessed by what you’ve experienced.
After seeing A Ghost Story at the Fantasia International Film Festival, I started with the former, as I normally do, trying to write about why writer/director David Lowery chose to avoid naming characters; why he chose to use door frames and windows as borders that at once underline the intimacy of memory and the division between the land of the living and the land of the dead; why he used a cheesy bed sheet ghost costume to create either a boundary to prevent the audience from seeing what is beyond the conscious world or provide an opportunity for the audience to project themselves onto a blank slate for the sake of emotional identification.
After trudging through the past two weeks trying to find an approach to review the film, I broke down, frustrated that I couldn’t show off some sort of intellectual prowess and explain all the ins-and-outs of A Ghost Story, and why Lowery’s aesthetic and barebones narrative explores how stories are passed down through time, adapted for different periods in history, like most fairy tales and myths that started through oral tradition and have become part of a collective unconscious, part of cultural heritage and personal identity. I had now entered the latter portion of how I was processing the film, essentially haunted and possessed by what I had experienced, but unable to explain why.
The other night, I was lying in bed with my girlfriend who had had a shit day, and when she isn’t feeling too well she does this thing where she takes my hand and places it on her chest just above her heart because it soothes her. That reminded me of a scene in the film where C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are lying in bed after checking up on a noise that startled them coming from the living room. M takes C’s hand and places it on her chest while C proceeds to kiss M’s forehead. And just like that, I found myself re-enacting the scene from the film and thinking about how just that little gesture is part of the story I share with my girlfriend, something I’ll remember, something I relate to.
That little moment opened up a world of thought to me. A Ghost Story made me realize how as I grow older, I find myself having trouble remembering what it is that made me care about certain moments I’ve been through, certain environments I grew up or lived in, certain people I held dear. I don’t know if it’s my own lack of nostalgia that has me more often looking forward than back, but I do know that I’ve always had trouble living in the present. A Ghost Story’s exploration of time has caused me to examine the logic of how time works in my life, why certain instances fly by while others feel like an eternity, and if those separate instances are because I’m feeling happy or dwelling on some regret.
And yet, A Ghost Story was at its most haunting when it caused me to look into my intimate relationship with possession. As a collector – of films, comics, Star Wars crap – I live with the paradoxical nature of possession where I imbue inanimate objects with emotions, memories, parts of my personality, all of which culminate to what I claim to be my identity, who I am in the mix of all things, but at the same time allowing those objects to possess me, give me meaning, or provide me with a sense of self.
It’s the same with relationships between people. You like or love certain people because you either see part of yourself in them, or you see something in them that you want to strive to achieve in terms of personal growth. Yet in terms of horror tropes, possession encapsulates being controlled by some outside supernatural force, or under the influence of emotions and ideas that seem like your own, but may not be. Lowery drew on personal experience to investigate his relationship with possession, his story paralleling the Ghost’s unwillingness to leave the house he lived in with his wife, a moment Lowery says he still struggles with. I love that investigation of how one defines ‘home’ and how ‘home’ can range from a minuscule moment that possesses you such as a song blasting in your headphones, or eating an entire pie to quell the sadness and confusion you feel, to an eternity existing in a house where you need to find closure.
And that’s now where I find myself; like the Ghost, I’m living inside a ghost story of my own, assessing the passage of time in my life. It’s a thought that is at once liberating and haunting. No one wants to be forgotten, but no one can choose how they are going to be remembered. So, whether it’s from beneath the Ghost’s bed sheet, the nihilistic rant toward the end of the film, or a note in a wall left by a loved one, the messages Lowery communicates are felt due to the sheer relatability of the emotions and circumstances presented in A Ghost Story.
This may sound odd, but the more I spend time harvesting the ideas in A Ghost Story, the more I feel myself changing as an individual. I’ve crossed one of those door frames and observed through some of those windows, and it is helping me redefine how I interact with the world around me, not because of how I want to be remembered, but rather how I would feel if I ever met me.
A Ghost Story isn’t for everyone, but I recommend everyone see it regardless. It is a singular experience and I want everyone to love it, dislike it, decry it for its pretentiousness, and applaud it for its brilliance. Everyone will gain some new information about themselves as individuals in the process. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, well, that’s part of your story.
(Jason’s review originally posted 3rd August 2017)
A concept so simple it can’t help but open the doors to a million different threads of thought, coupled with an execution so stunningly devoid of hints and easy answers it can’t but ask the audience to consider them all.
How one connects with A Ghost Story may perhaps depend on how much one is open to connecting with themselves, and considering what they have, and reflecting on what they one day may not have. Grief is the ultimate exploration here, in its many forms and parallels, its physical and phenomenal wear, and it goes so far beyond what is required for the story’s sake to the point that it even posits the process as an eternal universal for human kind, or at least one of the million threads may tell you so.
Open, thoughtful, patient and beautiful – depression quickly relapsing into reciprocal graciousness is the only rational response, but rationale is the last thing the film wants; it wants your unprocessed and unreserved emotions, and it knows a more direct approach than horror to get them. Lucky are the few too confused to feel terrible.