“Is there something there?”
It’s the middle of the night. Seconds earlier, a young husband and his wife were lying peaceably in bed in their recently purchased ranch house. Then came the noise; a distinctly loud noise. It sounded as though the wires of the old piano in the living room were just slammed. Definitely the piano. The husband slowly, cautiously, explores. The wife remains back in the bedroom. After a few minutes, the husband returns. Nothing there. “Something must have fallen on the piano,” the husband says.
In writer/director David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, that one, conventional, scare-movie moment is perhaps the only scene that could be said conveys a traditional sense of what a mainstream audience expects in a film about a haunted house. But A Ghost Story is hardly traditional. There is a house, and it’s definitely haunted, but this is not a horror film, nor is it something that will shake your senses or give you sleepless nights. It’s not that kind of film.
The idea for A Ghost Story came to director Lowery after an argument with his wife. They were living in small town Texas when Hollywood beckoned. The issue they faced was should they remain in Texas or should they move to California where the work was? Lowery was directing the Disney remake Pete’s Dragon, and it seemed sensible to make the move. But Lowery didn’t want to go. He liked their house and he liked where he lived. He felt a connection. His wife didn’t understand, and they fought.
In A Ghost Story there are principally three characters; the husband, known only as C (Casey Affleck), the wife, known only as M (Rooney Mara), and the somewhat dilapidated ranch house in Texas. It looks a little rundown on the outside, a good paint job might work, but comfortable within. C likes the house and doesn’t want to move. M is the opposite and doesn’t understand her husband’s connection or his reluctance to leave.
Then the unthinkable happens. C is killed in a head-on collision just steps from his drive. We don’t see the accident or how it happened; it’s not required. We just see the end result. C dies at the wheel, shattered glass on the dashboard before him. But later, at the morgue, something odd happens, and it occurs minutes after M leaves the room, having just seen her husband’s face for one last time; the motionless body lying under the sheet suddenly sits up, still under the sheets.
The idea that when you die you step into whatever is waiting for you in the next spiritual realm is here shown as a brilliantly lighted doorway that opens up at the end of the morgue hallway. C, now clearly a ghost covered in that sheet with holes for eyes, stares at the inviting light, then decides not to go through it. Instead, he takes a left, leaves the building, walks miles across country land, and returns to his grieving wife and the ranch house that meant so much to him. And there he stays.
The connection to his wife, the house, and the space upon which that house was built is too strong for the husband’s spirit to release, so he remains, silently observing while time passes. He’s still there after his wife moves and new people move in. And he’s there when the house is bulldozed. He’s still there in that same space when a high-rise is built. And he waits. He even circles back in time to early American settler days when all that was there was the open land upon which the ranch house will eventually be built, and he’s there when he and his wife move in. And like the reflection of a mirror within a mirror, he sees himself as a white-sheeted ghost, observing everything he had previously seen.
There are so many ways you could explain what A Ghost Story is really about. It’s certainly about love, but it’s also about grief and yearning; space and time; and a connection to things we never realized meant so much. It could also be about a search for meaning when looking back on lives lost. It’s one of the saddest films you’ll ever see. But it’s not a haunted house movie, and it’s not conventional.
Interestingly, there’s another white-sheeted ghost seen through the window in the house next door. They wave at each other and even converse through subtitles. “I’m waiting for someone,” the ghost in the other house relates. “Who?” asks C. “I don’t remember,” comes the subtitled replay.
Filmed with a screen ratio of only 1:33 (the shape of early TV sets; practically a square), director Lowery uses rounded corners to soften the look. He holds moments for lengthy periods without dialog, movement, or cutting away. When M receives a homemade chocolate pie in a round, glass dish from a neighbor, she sits on the floor and takes a bite, then another, then another. The shot lasts for four minutes with M unable to stop eating while the ghostly white sheet with the two black holes for eyes stands motionless just a few feet away, observing.
Running at only 87 minutes, this atmospherically melancholy film is going to test the patience of many. Even those attuned to its style and find it an effective, singular way of exploring its many themes may occasionally squirm in their seat. Once the point appears to be made, all you feel you’re now doing is waiting for the scene that has lingered for so long in one, continuous shot to move on. There’s a lengthy moment when C hovers at a house party. One of the guests seated at a table in the kitchen (Will Oldham) waxes philosophically about life, death, the future, what the end of the world will bring, and Beethoven, while the ninth plays quietly underneath. His meandering though urgent sounding party talk seems to last as long as the symphony itself. After several minutes, you might wish the ghost had turned and eavesdropped on someone less verbose.
A Ghost Story may be a haunting exercise in observing, just as C’s white-sheeted ghost observes, but it’s demanding a lot, particularly when the apparition is not a faded spirit that passes through doors and walls, but rather a symbol, represented by a child’s comical Halloween costume. The audience will be limited. The film is the kind best appreciated by other filmmakers and students who’ll enjoy the post-film discussion. Even the art-house crowd will be divided.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 87 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)