A Ghost Story (2017)
dir. David Lowery
R / 1h 32m / Drama, Romance
– I am waiting for someone.
– I don’t remember.
My city has a little film festival every year by the name of Sidewalk that it seems I never get to go to and forget to plan around. This year was no different in that aspect – but it was different in that I have made a few more film friends and one of them, Tim Z, said he was going mostly for this film.
I read Sidewalk’s profile on it and seemed interesting enough, and even something I might like. Festival films are a genre all their own – artsy, frustrating, rough around the edges mostly. Few make it big but amidst the bad ones that are certainly bad the good ones seem to be extra good. The latter is true for A Ghost Story (2017).
This review will discuss the storyline but not the conclusion.
A Ghost Story centers around a couple portrayed by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. There is an untimely death of the mister and he is stuck on earth, in between. He watches his wife deal with the grief of his passing, he witnesses new families move into his house, he haunts them. Time passes and the world grows. Things change. But he is constant.
Let’s go ahead and address this – Casey Affleck is under that sheet for the majority of the film and at first it feels truly, truly silly. Like how in the world are you going to take this film seriously? The weirdness of the sheet quickly falls away though, as we begin to see a used – to – be human stuck in a world that used to be his, exhibit loneliness, helplessness, and contemplation. It’s different, and it really fits together.
A warning, the first portion of A Ghost Story is, at times, painstakingly slow that it is almost abysmal. I don’t shoot films, but I know when a scene has overstayed its welcome. I counted 3 of them, but they are not enough to ruin this film, and they are completed before the halfway mark. It just sucks that time couldn’t have been used more wisely.
The way you view the world, humanity, and time will affect how you feel about this film. I am not going to say that it takes a special person to like it, that is far from the truth, but without an open mind and a healthy curiosity of the afterlife, you’re not going to enjoy it. You’re going to leave twenty one-star reviews on IMDB (I see you assholes). You will feel wasted rather than wholly fulfilled. You’ll probably hate yourself, too.
I cried for 45 minutes when it ended. Like, open mouth sobbed. I hugged my husband hard. I washed my face twice. I dampened my pillow with tears that just wouldn’t stop coming. I love it when that happens.
The most beautiful thing about A Ghost Story is how it wraps up humanity and existentialism in such an inexplicable way, that it just has to be felt. We all know an untimely death can lead to a specter – mostly due to feelings of denial, strong emotional connections to the living, or unfinished business on earth. Our ghost is most likely still present for the second one. We have to watch as he stands over his grieving wife for who knows how long. He reaches out to touch her but she doesn’t feel him. She’s lonely in a house they meant to make a home together. He watches her heal, begin to move on – you can’t see his face but you can feel his hurt – and you feel it deep. When she moves out of the house, there’s a shot of him at the window that you will have a hard time ever forgetting.
The cinematography is a quiet gorgeousness, with shots of Rooney living, and our ghost just standing and watching. It’s all very intimate. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1 which adds to that intimacy. I’m some scenes, the aspect ratio is the same but the shots are wider, as if to make you understand that there is something bigger even in the smallest intricacies.
A small ritual performed by the wife since she was a child leaves our ghost scratching at the walls for a note she left, which turns his presence from emotional connection to unfinished business. He is scratching as time is passing. He blinks and a new family is present. Again, you can’t see his face but you feel his confusion, his anger, towards strangers in his home. He begins to haunt. Time is passing, the family has moved, the house stands empty, he walks down the hall and there are new people, young people, young discussions. He overhears a conversation about leaving legacies, how none of it matters because what we know will end by the hands of the sun. There is a feeling of understanding – more time passes, he still scratches.
It is made apparent that some people stay after death until they have fulfilled something, or understand something new that allows them to move on. This was portrayed by the addition of the neighbor’s ghost (in a floral sheet, which I really liked). The two speak through windows, the other is waiting for someone they can’t even remember anymore. We see our ghost witness the moving on of his friend, leaving him lonely once more. And goodness, that scene brought me to tears – I don’t think they are coming. The leaving of this plane is so sudden and powerful and freeing, it is straight up jarring. Time passes. We see the world change, built up. The house is gone before he can retrieve the note. He remains.
The conclusion is strange and satisfying, heartbreaking and contemplative. The aggressiveness of time is made so abundantly clear that it reminds you of our tiny, unremarkable blip in the history of the universe. With that, the tenderness of our relationships, our lives, swell deep in our chests. It is difficult to come face to face with the embodiment of how life just goes and goes and goes, with you, without you, and it doesn’t stop. It is difficult to see, feel, that you are forgotten. Your house, your memories are forgotten. Your life in a place is overridden by newness and time just goes on. And who knows, you very well could get stuck like our ghost did. Stuck here. Stuck, to watch your person navigate life without you. It’s so damn difficult to think about how the person you’re loving may love someone else when it is their turn to go. But how selfish is that to want otherwise? Imagine the helplessness of just standing and watching, the powerlessness of the in between.
It is a heavy film, disguised with a comedic image of a man under a sheet. It is beautiful and quiet, vast and specific.
You can’t just watch A Ghost Story, you have to understand it. There are few words, no body language or facial expressions to follow. It is only understood emotionally. Maybe it is easier for people like me, who have a different understanding of what happens when we die, or maybe it is easier for people to grasp if they have lost a loved one. Maybe all it takes is being an artsy film snob. Either way, it isn’t for everyone. And if you are thinking right now, in this moment, that it isn’t for you, it probably isn’t.