“A Ghost Story” is an extraordinary cinematic tone poem on time, humanity’s relationship with time and how it plays into the human experience, loss, grief, death, transition, memory, nostalgia, and each individual’s personal passage through life. It cloaks itself in the sight gag of the main character, the titular ghost, being garbed as the most stereotypical child’s imagining of a ghost there could be, but director David Lowery has a remarkably assured grip on the film’s tricky tone, straddling the line between the inherent comedy and absurdity of the premise and costume (one inspired sequence sees the ghost basically reenact “Poltergeist”, but the scares of the scene are offset by the hilarity of seeing a man in a cheap white sheet be the cause of all the horror) and the gaping existential horror the film increasingly dips into it as it crests its runtime.
The film is shot in cramped Academy ratio, but with the edges blurred off, making the frame look like a photoreel or physical photograph, tying into how the film plays with nostalgia and looking back on old memories and representations of times gone by. The ghost, already garbed in such a bulky and billowing costume, takes up so much of the frame when shot in this aspect ratio; it’s overpowering and centres the film in his viewpoint. The ghost feels claustrophobically trapped inside the frame, echoing the discomfort and claustrophobia of his prolonged existence. Inside the house the film chiefly takes place in, the ghost is often shot either so close to the foreground the proximity is unnerving and uncomfortable, or so far in the distance (corners and nooks and whatnot) that he seems powerless, ineffectual and weak. Outside, things are more varied – a highlight is the ghost’s journey to the house, shot far, far overhead, so he seems little more than a speck below (helping offset the long walk that might’ve seemed overpoweringly silly if shot closer). The performances are key here too, as the restraint of the actor underneath the sheet is vital to establishing so much power of his position within the frame and the small acts of repositioning he occasionally does within it.
Lowery edited the film as well as directing it, and his vision comes across very strongly as the film is so concerned with time and the ghost’s relationship with it. Scenes linger uncomfortably long in the early stages of the film. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara kiss and cuddle in bed for so long and so intimately it feels uncomfortably voyeuristic to watch, too genuine and small and long a moment to be entertaining in the way film romance usually is. Rooney Mara despondently gorging herself on a pie lingers on a static shot for several minutes, one of the highpoints of the film as it captures such a relatable early response to grief so well, that aimlessnesses and out-of-world-ness, utter detachment, stuck out from time, all but unable to really strike out and assert any decisive interaction with reality, just dispassionately going through the motions of a rote activity like eating while the grief swirls all around. Lowery denies the cut for an excruciating amount of time, and as Mara’s method of eating the pie is captivating aggressive and idiosyncratic, it takes some time before the eye wanders enough to see the ghost watching on from a distance, at the back of the frame.
These long scenes are offset by how quickly the later stages of the film flit through time and history, not in the regular everyday sense (thinking a piano was tuned recently instead of a year ago), but a much more fleeting, slippery sense. The ghost turns around and days, months, years fly by. Time passes slowly in youth but exponentially goes faster and faster, as more and more control is lost over it. A person’s, a soul’s permanence becomes a messier and more wispy proposition as time marches on, more and more things change, more and more things are lost, and one naturally seems less and less significant in the face of time. A long monologue breaks the film up around the midpoint, in some ways functioning as a palette cleanser as the film transitions from a more romance and grief focused affair to something more abstract, less immediately personal, and more sweeping in a Malick-esque kind of grasp at universal spiritual questions. The nihilistic monologue proposes the meaningless of existence and the impossibility of legacy. It could be argued it’s uncharacteristically on-the-nose for the film, and it’s certainly a stylistic shift, but the film never directly commits to a position (nihilistic or otherwise) on its themes, so the monologue functions more as a verbal refinement of the concepts the film is engaging with rather than an author mouthpiece articulating the film’s vision. The way ghostly iconography is recontextualised in the film’s increasingly abstract story in the third act demonstrates the film isn’t trying to present everything at the most literal, straightforward level, and while it’s tempting to take its most straightforward and dialogue-heavy scene as a refutation to that, I think it works better when considered as just another idea the film is engaging with (or perhaps even the antithesis to the first act’s thesis) rather than a statement of intention.
The third act of the film arguably rejects such nihilistic notions as set forward in that monologue by demonstrating that while perhaps impact upon history, the planet, and indeed other people can’t last, it can matter in the moment, and perhaps that matters enough, Certainly the catharsis the film reaches in its ending could be argued as a demonstration of that viewpoint. What little impact made upon a person can count in those moments, and maybe that’s enough. It’s no small point of irony that the monologuing character of the film’s midpoint is waxing on very self-assuredly about the functions of the universe, death, and time, while the presence of a literal ghost right next to him refutes so many of his apparent certainties. The film suggests some mysteries can’t really be unpacked while in life, or even that ghostly stage before moving on to whatever’s next, not just in the suggestions of what happens to ghosts after they “depart”, but where certain scenes in the third act are placed structurally along character’s timelines – the humming of one of Affleck’s characters songs by a character who should ostensibly have no reason to know it brings to mind a question brought up in the third season of “Twin Peaks”, another 2017 release dealing with many of the same themes; “is it future or is it past?”. I hope the future contains more work of this calibre from David Lowery, because this was a phenomenal, moving achievement. Five bedsheets, and a flickering lightbulb.