“A Ghost Story” was released in 2017 and directed by David Lowery. It starred Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. This is not a horror movie.
A man and a woman live in a house. They have some disagreement about living there – the woman wants to move, while her husband is not all that keen. The husband dies in a car accident, and his spirit, draped in a rather cliched sheet, complete with eyeholes, returns to the house to haunt it. The remaining story depicts the passage of time from the perspective of the ghost.
Dialogue is minimal. The ghost doesn’t speak. There are a couple of scenes where he interacts with another ghost, but this seems to happen on a psychic level, with the conversation given in sub-titles. Speech only comes from the people the ghost observes over the years, and there is only one scene where there is a lot of human noise, where there is a party going on in the house. One character has the most dialogue in the entire film, more than everyone else put together, and it’s all in this one scene. It’s a pivotal moment in the film, as he virtually gives a speech about the futility of human endeavour. He says that as time passes, everything we strive for will eventually disappear. He does not know that a ghost is listening along with his living audience, and the ghost would have more understanding of this because he has watched everything he knows disappear.
It is the silence that speaks, however. As we watch extended scenes of the ghost’s passive observation of what is happening in the house, he becomes a kind of negative space, where his shapeless presence, though lacking form and function, draws the attention of the audience. Though he can do nothing, still we can’t help but watch him.
The silences become more obvious by the way sound is presented. Incidental noise is often overly loud, and the movement of a person rolling over in bed, screwing up a piece of paper, walking across a room, becomes almost deafening. It is a way of representing how loud such small sounds can be to the ear when your world is empty, as it is for the ghost. The sparing use of incidental music also helps here. The director is not afraid to use absolute silence frequently. When music is used it is haunting and beautiful, enhancing the profound sadness and stillness in this story.
It is interesting to note how static the camera is. Film currently tends to be very mobile, with multiple cuts and different angles. We are used to constant motion. The camera here will sit and examine a scene for minutes at a time. A good example of this is when the wife sits on the floor of her kitchen and eats a whole pie, while the ghost watches. The camera does not move for over five minutes, while the woman stabs at the pie with a fork and the ghost stands motionless. The scene does not end until the woman rushes to the bathroom to throw up. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and the most overt grief we see from the woman regarding her husband’s death. We never see her cry, but we never doubt she is grieving.
This film is profoundly sad. The lack of overt emotion makes it more powerful when emotions are expressed. For example, when a woman and two children move into the house after the wife leaves, there is a moment when the ghost, overwhelmed by some feeling (frustration? Anger? Loneliness?) smashes crockery and glass, frightening the family. It’s the only point where the ghost seems to feel anything. His face cannot be seen, so we can only tell through action and body language what is happening to him.
One of the saddest moments, for me, was the short initial conversation with the ghost in the next house. She says (thinks) ‘I am waiting for someone’. He asks who, and she says, ‘I don’t remember.’ How long has she been there? We don’t know, but it has been long enough for her to forget everything except that she must wait . (I only say ‘she’ because her sheet is flowered. The ghost isn’t necessarily a she.)
Time accelerates for the ghost. His perception, which the audience share, is that only moments have elapsed, and suddenly large segments of time have passed. His wife leaves, the family move in, then other people, then the house is abandoned. The office building is constructed. At this point the strangest part of the film happens. He jumps from an office balcony, to find himself in the same space in the past. Time becomes circular and everything starts again.
“A Ghost Story” is slow moving, almost glacial in its pacing. Be patient and you will be rewarded with a profound examination of grief, loss, and eternity.
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