A Ghost Story is the kind of movie that you’ll either love or hate. There’s very little wiggle room within the world director David Lowery creates. This is a quiet, small movie and I feel the best way to discuss it is to include spoilers, so be forewarned.
The film opens with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara (no names given), presumably married, living a quiet life in a small home in Texas. Casey ends up dying in a car accident outside of the house, and after Rooney IDs his body in the morgue, Affleck reawakens. He walks through the hospital, adorned in the morgue’s bedsheet, rejects the light, and travels home. He watches over his wife as she grieves, eats a pie, and slowly starts to move on. Eventually, she moves out, but not before writing a note and leaving it hidden in the walls (a callback to an earlier conversation she and her husband had). The Ghost spends all his time trying to retrieve the note. He notices another bed sheet ghost through the window of the house next door, and the two briefly communicate via subtitles.
At some point, a Spanish speaking family moves into the house, disrupting the Ghost from getting the note, so he haunts them until they move out. Some time later, someone else moves into the house and throws a party. The Ghost observes as one of the partygoers goes on a long, existential monologue about the inconsequentiality of life and existence. The lights start to shudder, indicating a similar haunting. The next thing we see is the Ghost standing in the decrepit remains of the house (which has probably gained a reputation as a haunted house), still working on getting the note. A bulldozer comes in and demolishes the house, leaving him aimless. The Neighboring Ghost recognizes the futility in waiting, saying he doesn’t think “they” are coming back, and vanishes from under his sheet. The Ghost remains to wander the property as a large, futuristic skyscraper is built and inhabited. The bright, neon cityscape indicates we’re some point in the future. The Ghost makes it to the skyscraper’s roof, and walks off.
After walking off the roof, the Ghost appears centuries ago, as a family of pioneers inhabit the land where, in the future, Casey and Rooney’s house will be built. The family of pioneers are killed by Native Americans, as the Ghost can do nothing but watch as their bodies slowly decompose. Eventually, the house is built, and Casey and Rooney purchase it. Casey’s Ghost, viewing his relationship from an outside perspective, observes as the couple moves in, love, and make the house their own. They discuss possibly moving. Casey says the house has some sort of history. Again, Casey dies in the car accident. We see the Ghost we’ve been following throughout the film, watching the newly deceased Ghost of Casey observe Rooney as she grieves. Rooney, again, moves out and leaves the little note within the wall. The Ghost finally manages to retrieve the note, reads in, and suddenly vanishes, his sheet falling to the ground. His purpose fulfilled.
PLAYING WITH PERSPECTIVE
Now that we have the plot out of the way, we can discuss some of the unique elements that make this film one of the year’s most interesting. One of its defining characteristics is its ability to put us into the perspective of the Ghost. A perfect example of this would be the pie eating scene. Just after Casey’s death, Rooney comes home to a pie left on her counter by a friend. She grabs a fork and starts eating, holding back tears. Each bite more forceful and violent, as she scrapes the fork against her teeth and violently pierces the pie. We think she’s had all the pie she can eat, but she brings herself to the kitchen floor, and keeps eating the pie. The scene lasts over five minutes before she can’t help but run to the bathroom and vomit. Even though it sounds pretty straightforward, there’s so much to unpack with this scene. With a complete absence of dialogue, we’re forced to ask questions. Why is she eating it so forcefully? She’s dressed in all black. Is she coming home from his funeral? What’s going through her head? As she falls to the floor, we can see Casey’s ghost watching her eat from the other room. We realize we’re in the same position as the Ghost, unable to stop, help, or comfort her. All we can do is watch.
Most of the film is devoid of dialogue, and lengthy scenes don’t feature any music. The silence portrays the stillness and emptiness of the Ghost’s world. At one point, we actually see paint drying (as Rooney puts a coat of paint over the hole in the wall where she puts her note). The stillness allows us to process what’s happening and to wonder what’s going on within the minds of these characters. Since there’s such little dialogue, you never really get any confirmation. Despite the last thirty seconds of the film, where the Ghost retrieves and reads the note (the contents of which the audience isn’t made aware), there’s no closure or confirmation for the audience. Perhaps this is drawing parallels to the open-endedness of a sudden death?
The sequence in which the Spanish speaking family moves into the house does not feature subtitles, as the Ghost can’t understand Spanish. Once he realizes the new family is keeping him from trying to get the note, he starts conventionally haunting them, by flickering lights and throwing plates. While the lack of subtitles, again, allows us to view the movie from the Ghost’s perspective, the haunting puts a twist on the typical haunted house, Amityville Horror type of ghost stories.
Another bizarre sequence that puts us in the Ghost’s POV is the one featuring the pioneers. This scene shows the long history of the property. The steady shots of the little girl’s dead body decomposing illustrate the stillness in the passing of time, as the Ghost is, again, helpless to do anything but observe. The attack is off screen, but the arrow wounds strongly imply it was done by Native Americans. This could possibly be seen as offensive, as once again Native Americans are portrayed as savages, but again, since the attack itself is left up to our imagination, I’ll give Lowery a pass.
A Ghost Story is in no way a conventional movie. Lowery plays with the audience’s expectations of what will happen, and manages to surprise us. We don’t see Casey Affleck’s car accident occur right outside of the house. Instead, we only see the aftermath. His car is rammed against another, with his bloody forehead pressed against the steering wheel. By removing the moment of impact, we don’t get the expected death scene, but rather a nearly still pan of the aftermath.
One of the movie’s small moments of comic relief comes when the Ghost communicates with the Neighboring Ghost via subtitles. This is a quirky touch that’s just weird enough to fit perfectly within the world of the movie. The two Ghosts say very little, but it’s an interesting inclusion that provides context. The Neighboring Ghost is waiting for someone, but he doesn’t remember who. It also proves that what is happening to Casey Affleck’s Ghost isn’t unique or special. It could happen to anyone.
During the party sequence, one of the partygoers, a few beers in, subjects us to a long, nihilistic monologue. Again, we’re forced, just like the Ghost, to listen to the whole thing, unable to do anything. The monologue is interesting within the context of the rest of the movie. He talks about how all everyone’s doing in the world is trying to make some kind of lasting effort, so we’ll be remembered when we’re gone. He tells us this is all futile, because eventually 90% of the population will die out, and the survivors will be forced to revert back to hunters and gatherers. Considering how silent the rest of the movie is, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that at least half of the film’s dialogue came from that character’s speech. Throughout the rest of the movie, however, this partygoer’s theory is proven wrong.
After the house is demolished, the giant, futuristic skyscraper built on his house’s property, amongst a neon, almost Blade Runner like cityscape. This highlights the enormous stretch of time the Ghost has been wandering aimlessly, until he walks off the roof. This raises a few questions, since we already saw the Neighboring Ghost vanish from under his sheet. We assume the Ghost has these same abilities, so why does he walk off the roof? Maybe he still feels he needs to fulfill his purpose, but sees no way to do that in continuing how he has been. Does this mean he knows about the spherical nature of time presented in this movie? When he walks off the roof, we expect his sheet to fall to the ground below him, essentially “killing off” the Ghost, but this never happens.
As the Ghost goes from the skyscraper’s roof to pioneer times I, at first, thought he might have gone into the distant future, and the partygoer’s monologue was some sort of prophecy. I thought maybe we had reverted back to the days of settlers. However, as the film went on, I quickly realized this was not the case, and that we had gone back in time. This makes me think the partygoer’s long monologue is simply a way to subvert the audience’s expectations as to what’s coming next. This could, again, put us into the point of view as the Ghost, unsure of exactly what’s happening.
The image of the bed sheet adorned, Charlie Brown ghost fits so well within the world of the film. It’s the same sheet from the morgue, so thematically, it makes sense. The Neighboring Ghost is wearing a printed sheet, so presumably, he died at home. The image of the Ghost, slowly walking throughout the house, the abandoned property, the skyscraper, and the barren landscape will forever be stuck in my mind. It’s so simple, but so evocative of childhood associations with death. Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, who previously shot the horror movie You’re Next, has perfectly balanced the otherworldliness of the ghosts without making it seem silly.
The entire movie is presented in 4:3 aspect ratio. This means that the film is shown in a rounded, almost square picture, centered on the screen, instead of the more traditional 1.85:1 or 2.39:1, widescreen aspect ratios. While your eyes quickly adjust to the almost squared image and forget about it, it seems to subconsciously add a level of intimacy to the movie. It makes it seem more confined and personal, almost like an old home movie.
While, as I previously mentioned, there’s very little dialogue in this movie, and many sequences are overtaken by silence, there is still a very effective score, produced by Daniel Hart, who has also scored Lowery’s other films, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon. Hart’s band, Dark Rooms, plays “I Get Overwhelmed” which influences and is incorporated within the rest of the film’s score. The entirety of the nearly five-minute song is played in a scene where Casey Affleck’s character, a musician, produces the song and lets Rooney Mara’s character listen to it. Her hearing it for the first time, next to Affleck, is juxtaposed with her lying on the floor, some time after Casey’s death, with her earbuds in, as we hear it from a distance. It’s a hauntingly beautiful song, with a simple, synth beat and high pitched, almost angelic vocals. “I Get Overwhelmed” has found its way into the deep crevices of my mind, and I don’t see it leaving anytime soon. I would say A Ghost Story matches, if not beats, Baby Driver as the best scored movie of 2017. The songs fit the mood and the imagery so perfectly.
In conclusion, A Ghost Story is destined to be one of the year’s most divisive films. Some people won’t be able to get over the image of the bedsheet ghost. Others will find it to slow and won’t make it past the pie eating scene. However, if you stick with it, and actively watch it, you’ll find A Ghost Story is one of the deepest, most hauntingly beautiful films in recent memory.
Montclair State | New Jersey