Have you ever been in an empty theater watching a movie completely alone? I got to experience this back in June when watching David Lowery’s A GHOST STORY. Not a single soul came to watch this remarkable film and it kind of seemed tragic. I guess everyone was still glossy-eyed over WONDER WOMAN that month which was an okay superhero film generating Warner Bros a $100,000 million opening weekend or whatever.
But what about the little indie film distributed by A24 which grossed a little over $1.5 million overall? Not bad for an estimated budget of $150,000. Although, it seems independent films in today’s industry aren’t valued as highly as they once were. They now compete with the ongoing tirade of the endless supply of superhero stories. As long as it makes more money then it’s perceived the most valuable in the eyes of these industry titans. Sigh.
A GHOST STORY is a love story and maybe you can say a little bit of a horror story too depending how you view films. The reason I say horror is because it presents us with this existential trepidation we all know awaits us while we prance around life from one distraction to the next. What really happens when you actually stop and think about the uncertainty of when someone you love dies and you feel this surge of grief sweeping you off your feet into a transcendental reef of pain? What’s scarier than the horror of contemplating the meaning of life? Cue in EXISTENTIAL CRISIS!
I’ll try to refrain from getting all cerebral here, but this film keeps the wheels and gears cranking throughout my mind. It’s like a subtle mindbender of a film that gently nudges you to the edge of reviewing all those hard moments you’ve experienced in life and suddenly find yourself in tears once the credits roll. Or at least, maybe that’s just me.
Again grief has always had a profound impact on me, since the age of eight when my grandmother passed away, I remember taking it really hard, because that was the first genuine moment that death jarred me to the bones. And to this day, I can still recall those vivid memories. It’s a tough road to go backwards on but again those are my memories and nothing but a brain injury can alter that.
Okay aside from my personal musings, this is slow cinema at it’s finest. It seeps into your subconscious awakening those intimate moments of experienced grief and wonder if those perished ones can in fact see you at your most vulnerable, private moments of mourning. The scene I’m talking about here is M (played by Rooney Mara) sits on the kitchen floor gorging her face with an entire pie after she’s learned C (the ghost, Casey Affleck) has not survived a car accident. This is a lengthy five-minute scene, where C is watching her in this most tranquil, eerie-like state, motionless. He’s a ghost so he can’t really do much but watch as his beloved sobs into a crème-filled pie trying to make the pain go away. Any human who’s ever had one of those moments can surely relate to it. It’s startling and highly affective to the point it nearly feels unbearable. The power in a single frame can tell you so much with sparse dialogue and the composition of how C is barely in the room but just enough to witness M stew in her misery. This translates to the distance that somewhat bestowed upon them in the beginning of the film, both wanting something different but instead tragedy unfolds between them which totally makes me think of the famous Joan Didion’s quote from The Magical Year of Thinking. “Life changes in the instant, the ordinary instant.”
It becomes even more haunting especially when you bring in the music with a song titled, “I Get Overwhelmed” totally brings the tone into an introspective level. Like a solemn thread of anxiety bottled in a delicate ballad which reaches for a time when things weren’t so overwhelming. I think it’s really trying to bring peace to the soul in its own way.
So since this story is about C haunting his house while the dynamic range of time represents itself in a sort of voyeurism, but also in a sense its like a personal purgatory. He’s a ghost attached to something tangible that doesn’t have the endurance to withstand the confines of time in the world of the living. But we get to understand from the C’s perspective who witnesses the comings and goings taking place over the span of numerous decades all in the same place, his house. The house becomes a symbol for life. We’re attached to our lives just as much we’re attached to tangible things.
The passage of time, goes as far to a family of settlers who build their homestead until they’re killed off by ( I assume) Native Americans, then we time travel to another family in which C haunts out of anger, to a party where the prime piece of monologue plants the idea of God and existentialism in our heads to finally how the industrial era completely turned the house into some enormous skyscraper of futuristic proportions. Or what’s even more important is when M wrote something on a piece of paper and buried it in a wall, to which C struggles to get to it throughout the entire narrative. What did she write him in that note? We’ll never have an answer because the significance lies with what that individual deems sacred. You can almost equate it to the importance of “Rosebud” in CITIZEN KANE. Either way, time is all over the place which emulates the necessity for jump cuts in the editing which is genius. It’s beautiful and irritatingly hypnotizing.
What’s even more interesting is in the opening we see the quote by Virginia Woolf from her 1921 short story A HAUNTED HOUSE states, “Whatever hour you woke there was a door shunting.” As Woolf is notorious for having characters such as Orlando exist on the outskirts of time, much of Lowery’s inspiration was drawn from this idea. I always find it fascinating how a filmmaker can pay homage to their favorite writers especially ones as profound as Woolf.
A GHOST STORY is an astonishing film albeit not for everyone. Yes, its humorous in regards to the main character masquerading in a white sheet for the duration of the film and that may appeal to some who have a strange curiosity and sense of humor. This film explores the depth of our own existence asking whether we believe we’re being watched or haunted by loved ones but also it asks us to examine our own lives. It’s a unique piece of cinema presented in a deeply poetic nature which will make you agonize or perhaps feel a calm sense of peace as we survive life navigating our paths blazed by emotions, thoughts, and experiences all the while knowing death hovers over every single one of us like some distorted halo.