“Time is a flat circle. Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again- forever.” – Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cole, True Detective, Season 1
David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is a haunting reflection on time, our place in it, and the importance of our actions – what we do with and make of our lives. It is also a film that stands quietly, boldly in condemnation of much of what Hollywood has become; a machine that cranks out spectacles that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make and many more millions to market, a machine that produces sequel after prequel after sequel, a machine that pushes for bigger, louder, faster, stronger. And for all the money, all the brand recognition, all the intensity, I’m not sure I’ve seen a film yet this year that has so profoundly moved me. All with the most basic settings and effects (including what very easily could have been laughable, a simple sheet used as a ghost costume), minimal dialogue, long takes, and quiet contemplation.
The film opens with intimate and commonplace scenes of a couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) and their home which immediately give a sense of stillness and quiet, which dominates the tone and pacing of the rest of the film, accentuated by a few low-key, creative moments of dialogue and nods to horror, science fiction and fantasy sprinkled throughout. Long, lingering shots give us a sense of time moving slowly, which becomes key to our understanding of the perception of time in the latter parts of the film which portray what might otherwise be unimaginable spans of time. It’s a simply amazing display of writing, directing, cinematography and editing that Lowery pulls off here using the most basic elements.
Never named, Casey Affleck’s character is only credited as “C” and dies in a car accident early in the film. He arises, covered in a sheet and makes his way to the home he shared with Rooney Mara’s “M,” watching, waiting, lingering as she grieves his passing and slowly, slowly moves on both in her personal life and then from their home. He stays, tied to the location. “We have history here,” a still alive “C” says. A new family moves in and we sense the frustration of his ghost, losing, we presume, the ability to watch over his love in life. There is a touching scene in this sequence that deftly intertwines the sadness of the ghost, the horror of a haunted family, and the imagination of children.
More time passes. More occupants come and go.
Will Oldham (who performs as a singer-songwriter under the name Bonnie Prince Billy) anchors the film as a resident, or guest of a resident at a party in the house, performing a monologue-as-set-piece, asking his fellow party goers—but really us, the audience—what point is there in what we do with our lives, in what we accomplish? At the end of time, the universe will cease to exist. And then what goes on? What of our deeds, our work, our accomplishments? These questions can easily lead one to staggering depression or the darkness of nihilistic thought. It seems to anger the ghost.
More time passes. The house is demolished. The landscape changes. A skyscraper is constructed.
More time passes. Societies rise and fall.
More time passes. Eons. A new house is constructed. “C” and “M” move into the house. The ghost watches intimate and commonplace scenes of the couple.
There are so many questions that could be explored here in an analysis of A Ghost Story. What is the nature of time? What is the purpose and meaning of our lives? What is love between two individuals in the vast expanse of time and the universe? Does paying attention to and caring for and listening to others matter? Does creating art and building things matter? Is there existence beyond this universe? Are we haunted by people and places? Or do they haunt us? Do we as individuals and as cultures learn from our mistakes as the cycles of life repeat?
It’s all very heady stuff, existential stuff that could be compared to some of Kubrick’s work or Terrence Malick’s. But it’s also sweetly sentimental. And to Lowery’s credit, A Ghost Story never becomes pretentious about any of these questions. Unfortunately, I was not able to see this film on the big screen. And I have no doubt it would have been worth that experience. But I suspect the film might play even better at home, watched among loved ones, maybe sometime on a cool autumn evening as the daylight hours shorten, as it offers itself and those questions to be quietly contemplated or discussed among those you share the experience with.