“One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
— Emily Dickinson, “Part Four: Time and Eternity: 69”
“There are some weird noises in this house.” A couple lie together on a small, old sofa, their limbs entwined, sharing memories and contemplating their future. M (Rooney Mara) remembers moving from place to place as a child, and her efforts to ward off loss by writing notes and poems, “a little piece of me”, slipped into cracks in the walls of homes she left behind. Now, as they plan to move from their tiny Texas home, C (Casey Affleck) resists.
The differences and connections between C and M are made visible in A Ghost Story through a series of haunting images. While C, a musician, composes synthy romances on his keyboard, C appears in the background, blurred. When the two of them investigate a noise they’ve heard at night, they appear in doorframes, as if posed. And when M rolls the trash can out to the sidewalk for the next morning’s pickup, the camera waits and watches from a distance. As she walks back inside, the shot steadily, slowly, pans left, then right again as the house sits silent, receding into the evening.
It’s a mundane moment turned into art, composed, careful, strangely sublime. And it’s a prelude to pattern, as David Lowery’s movie goes on to transform all manner of ordinary actions into weird little bits, most often offered in long takes and long distances, immobile images or slow frame movements. Sometimes, the weirdness is jarring or clumsy, and sometimes, it’s preternaturally pretty. Sometimes, it’s painfully overstated and other times, unnervingly subtle. The mix of these effects makes A Ghost Story seem at once too simple and also, imperfectly oblique.
The film’s most observable thematic focus is loss, compounded by grief and fear and inevitability. Cinematographer Andrew Droz PalermoIt’s camera immerses you in extended minutes of muted color and light, the space between objects in any given frame more resonant than any action. It’s not long after you see that C and M are moving out of the house that they are stopped by a car accident that leaves C dead and M alone. The accident is presented in another long take, the camera panning right, from the front of C and M’s home, to show a vehicle near the driveway, a vehicle twisted and broken. Inside, C is slumped over the steering wheel and, a couple of scenes later, he’s under a sheet in a morgue, waiting to be identified by M. Following her departure, the sheet rises, with eyeholes cut out, and the ghost’s story begins — or, more precisely, is made exceedingly obvious. For M’s story, before C’s death and after, has its own spectral structure, not embodied so conspicuously but hard to miss.
The film goes on to watch the ghost watching. It’s not clear what rules might be ordering the ghost’s existence, but it appears to be restricted to the house or the general area of the house. As he observes the goings on inside, you project. Pushed to the back of the frame as M makes her peace with her loss — whether she responds to a book the ghost flicks off a shelf or finds herself wolfing down an entire pie while seated on the kitchen floor, during a phenomenally long take that reveals as much about loss and pain as any moment in any story, ever — the ghost is by turns ineffective and helpless. When at last she moves on, to another place, he’s left to scratch and poke at the crack in a wall where she has left behind yet another a note, a “little piece” of her.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story (2017)
You might guess that what’s in that note is unknowable, but the ghost longs for understanding, for confirmation, for story. Long after she’s gone, he seeks an answer, or maybe he just hangs about. He haunts the next couple of tenants, including a single mother (Liz Franke) and her young children (Carlos Bermudez and Yasmina Guiterrez), then a loose assembly of partygoers who may have walked in from Richard Linklater’s Texas-set Slacker, where a fellow (Will Oldham) holds forth at the kitchen table, explaining “how I break it all down”. The “it” here sounds a lot like life and death, meaning and legacy, delivered as a blustery monologue that’s as unoriginal as it is long, underscoring the futility of hope, as everyone dies and, as this fellow (called “the prognosticator” in the film’s credits) puts it, “The future will hit a brick wall.”
Performed as the ghost watches, this interlude is its own brick wall, both preposterous and ham-handed. That is to say, it’s something like a verbal counterpart to the gimmick of the sheet with eyeholes. At the same time, and by comparison, the prognosticator’s recitation, so self-assured and so self-centered, makes the ghost’s uncertainty and ambiguity, look almost exquisite.
Such contrast is what A Ghost Story does well. For all the assertions of sense and consequence that movies (and other stories) like to make, they tend mostly to reveal what they can’t define, what can’t be known or resolved. As you come to see that this movie will not make sense in any conventional way, that it will instead use conventions to expose the loss they cover over, you may be thrilled or horrified or bored. It’s an idea that flies in the face of what stories are conceived to do, which is to show moral order or political value, to develop formal or spiritual sense. A Ghost Story offers none of that. Instead, it pitches itself headlong into a search that can’t end, the ghost’s search, your search.
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As this structure is tied to the ghost’s location, the home, the search becomes a journey through and around time. That time cannot be linear, as most stories insist, it can’t take you from one point to another or provide cause and effect. It does move, however, and as such, it looks circular, with scenes and the ghost’s experiences repeating, shown from other perspectives. Or so you surmise. As the story becomes yours, as you guess at the ghost’s experiences, you might find other ways to understand the weird noises and the intricate images before you.