Editor’s Note: A Ghost Story releases on streaming and home video on October 3, 2017.
Time: that tortuous ticking clock, that mysterious muse, that swift and sneaking thief. Our relationship with time is too complex to fully fathom within a given moment, for we can never step outside our own perspective. One long Monday at the office feels like it will never end, but then somehow we get to Friday and wonder where the week has gone. An hour feels interminable; a year passes by in what seems like a blink. We chase sleep, we chase deadlines, ever at the mercy of this invisible viceroy.
David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is the most profound cinematic pondering on the nature of time. In its very simple construct, the film presents time in a visual and spatial context, a singular experience that offers the viewer an opportunity to step outside of the time spectrum and feel its passage as a witness. Few films permit the audience to fully immerse and look in from the outside all at once; this one seems to adopt the expansive relationship between time and existence as its costuming.
Our white-sheeted protagonist drifts through the space he once physically inhabited through time immemorial – literally – in sequences that occur with increasingly swift succession.
On the subject of costuming, it would be so easy for the film to implode based purely on its central costume choice: A Ghost Story centers its narrative on a lone person walking around in a white sheet. That image alone is likely enough to make an unsuspecting viewer permanently recoil. Yet there is intense beauty within this construct: so traditionally gothic in presentation, retrograde to such a perfunctory level that it reinforces the celestial barrier between life and death, between the concrete and the abstract. Somehow, a man walking around in a tattered white sheet with eye holes feels so removed from our understanding of reality that it thrusts an additional barrier between the physical world and the metaphysical being. It stands out to such a degree that it’s rendered fully invisible, an old-fashioned wraith amid a world so modern that its inhabitants stare right through it.
The titular apparition is the afterlife materialization of a man, referred to only as C, and played in human form by Casey Affleck. In life he was an aspiring musician living in a new home somewhere in Texas with his wife (Rooney Mara). Place becomes a vital character in the film – not a specific place, but the notion of place as sort of personal or family crest, a representation of who lived and breathed in a particular space, part of a personal legacy. In the intermittent scenes in which Affleck and Mara share the screen – first to open the film and later in flashback – dedication to place is a source of marital strife. He clings to this home whereas she holds no such precious notions – though she does tell stories of leaving her impact on places by leaving tiny notes within minute cracks in the drywall. When she asks him why he loves the place, he responds, “History?” as though he isn’t quite sure what he means by that. Their history as a couple? The home’s place in the larger human history? The specifics don’t matter so much as the idea: how one’s presence within a singular place can impact the environment and become part of its character.
As the expanse of the universe moves beyond human understanding, so our ghost’s experience moves beyond the linear and into something less perceptible, like an amorphous circle.
When the man dies unexpectedly, he emerges in the hospital in the aforementioned sheet, returning to his home – haunting it, though not in the traditional sense. So, too, does the woman – now alone, also a specter of sorts, separated from her partner and therefore feeling foreign within the space she shared with him. And so continues the passage of time – slow and excruciating in the immediate aftermath, the inevitable acute pain of grief and tragedy. There is a seemingly endless single-take scene, already legendary in the pre-release discussion of the film, in which Mara literally eats an entire pie, one of those obligatory neighborhood gifts after a loved one’s death. She eats, first with tentative sorrow and later with insistent anger, and we watch in real time – the painfulness of time when all we want to see or experience is something different.
Then something different comes…a lot of different somethings. And we wonder what the hell happened. So A Ghost Story unfolds, designed with such skillful precision to simulate human perception of time’s passage – and further, to lull the audience into time’s uncertain, unspoken, undetectable cadences. Our white-sheeted protagonist drifts through the space he once physically inhabited through time immemorial – literally – in sequences that occur with increasingly swift succession, a cascade of generations cascading as if mere moments in an ever-expanding spectrum of nothing simpler or more complex than life itself. As the expanse of the universe moves beyond human understanding, so our ghost’s experience moves beyond the linear and into something less perceptible, like an amorphous circle.
Witnessing the ongoing swirl of existence more resembles a curse than a blessing, though each ghost eventually reaches a point of “crossing over,” as it were, when each attains whatever solace its restless soul requires. For our ghost, it’s discovering what his wife wrote on that tiny note embedded within the drywall, for within this eternal space, that’s where his version of legacy meets hers: an end to an argument, a discovery of a message, and a reconciliation of one’s place in this (im)mortal coil.
A Ghost Story centers its narrative on a lone person walking around in a white sheet. That image alone is likely enough to make an unsuspecting viewer permanently recoil. Yet there is intense beauty within this construct: so traditionally Gothic in presentation, retrograde to such a perfunctory level that it reinforces the celestial barrier between life and death, between the concrete and the abstract.