A Ghost Story is the greatest meditative experience of the year, bar none. It’s a miracle that such a movie was made in America, considering it bears all the hallmarks of Eastern European cinema – it moves at a snail’s pace, relies on symbolism and visual imagery more than dialogue, and features long, transformative takes that play with the viewer’s perception of time and space.
There isn’t much of a story. A married couple lives in a small house in the American South. It’s all rather idyllic, until the husband is killed in a car accident. The recently deceased comes back as a white-sheeted ghost and returns to his home, where he watches on as his wife deals with his death. Eventually, she moves on and leaves the house, never to return, leaving the ghost trapped inside. The rest of the movie follows the ghost’s journey through time, witnessing other families live their lives in what was once his own home.
There is one scene in particular that seems to have attracted more attention than the rest of the movie, and it is the five-minute-long take of Rooney Mara (the wife) eating pie as the ghost looks on. It’s been used as an example of the film’s pretentiousness and self-indulgence, but in reality it serves a very important narrative purpose. As the story progresses, the time jumps become more frequent, the ghost turns around and finds himself with a new family, or sees the house changed, transformed in the space of two frames. This is in stark contrast with the first half of the film which is much, much slower, with less cuts and more long takes. The passage of time speeds up as the ghost ages, it’s a phenomenon that we all experience as we progress through life. Our formative years seem much longer, each day feels like a whole eternity in and of itself. But as time wears us down, we start to realize that everything is passing by us at a much faster pace. One minute you’re enjoying your summer vacation and the next you’re stuck home, working, snow falling right outside your window. The passage of time is a cruel thing, especially once you become completely cognizant of it. But it’s also an integral part of the formation of memories. We cherish our past because it is unattainable. We look back on it fondly because it is a moment that is forever trapped in time, untouchable and impossible to change or taint. David Lowery knew that when making A Ghost Story and used it to make the viewer empathize with the ghost, despite its being a walking sheet. We see a slice of the husband’s life in the very beginning of the movie, we see how alive he is, we see he has things to do and to live for. All of that is gone in an instant, and his ghost is left wandering through time and the space of his house, constantly remembering what he had and will never have again. He becomes lost in his own home. The first part of the movie sees the wife grieving the loss of her husband, while the second part shows us a man that is nothing but a remnant of the past, helplessly looking for an anchor. The feeling of entrapment is further augmented by the film’s unusual aspect ratio (1.33 : 1, the original silent film ratio) with rounded edges and the constant use of frames within the frame.
Another point of contention has been the longest speaking part of the film, a monologue, delivered by a man at a party as the ghost watches on. In a nutshell, it’s about the finite nature of both our own existence and that of the Universe as a whole, as well as an admission of defeat in the face of pointlessness. It’s somewhat heavy-handed, but in my mind it was very necessary. It ushers in the latter part of the film that sees the ghost moving on from mourning himself and his own fate and realizing the nature of time and the futility of life. It could’ve been done in a more subtle way, but it would’ve meant extending the film’s run time, which would’ve been a disservice to it, as A Ghost Story works much better as a short but heavy and mentally tasking experience.
The score is great and sets the tone perfectly, guiding us through the ghost’s feelings. The editing is also key to setting the tone and controlling the pacing. Some shots linger for what feels like an eternity, but at other points the film cycles through years or decades in a matter of seconds, while still managing to emphasize the emotions of its characters. The pie scene is one such case. The longer we watch the wife eating pie, the harder we’re hit by the realization that she is utterly, completely alone, but also by the recognition of our own selves in Mara’s brilliant performance – the feeling of emptiness after the passing of a loved one, the lack of direction, the listlessness and apathy.
A Ghost Story is a beautiful film that delivers an understated exploration of grand themes through great cinematography and editing. It’s one of the best films of the year and most definitely worth a watch, if only to see Casey Affleck wearing a ghost costume.