Under the covers
David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’ successfully combines sorrow, absurdity and the supernatural
“Is there something there?” asks M (Rooney Mara), who is following her boyfriend, C (Casey Affleck), through their house after a sudden noise has woken them in the middle of the night. In A Ghost Story (in national release), director David Lowery implies that there is always something, everywhere. Spaces leave traces – of their own history, at the very least – and time itself is the most haunting force of all. Lowery, who last year made Pete’s Dragon, a $65 million extravaganza, shot this tiny, elegiac mood poem in 26 days in a run-down, pegged-for-demolition house in Texas. He has created a ghost story that is not in any way a horror story. It is at times as preposterous as it is beguiling.
M and C live together. He appears to be a composer; it’s not clear what she does, other than mope a little. But they’re in love. They’re comfortable with each other. Lowery is comfortable letting us know this, via, for example, a single take of M and C in bed, doing nothing but nuzzling, that goes on for a good long while.
There’s a future stretching before them, and a past that has clearly been inhabited for some time. Then, one day, C dies in a car crash right outside their home. (We see only the gently smouldering aftermath.) When M gazes down on C’s body in the morgue, you sense she’s already burying her loss, and tightening the screws on her repression. Mara has shown herself to be adept at imbuing “bottled up” with a shimmering, simmering pathos and containedness, in films such as Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) and Benedict Andrews’ Una (2016).
But then, when M has left the room, C sits up abruptly, under the morgue shroud. This simple costume – a white sheet, with holes for eyes – is what Affleck will wear for the rest of the film. In publicity material, the filmmakers stress that it is Affleck under the sheet, and that his gait and posture are very uniquely his own, and help make the film what it is. It’s hard to imagine that’s really the case, but good for Casey if it is – and bless these method actors. The conceit we must accept if we are to enjoy what follows is that C’s presence in time and place is real, even if his ghost shroud is a kind of metaphor. For all its absurdity, the trope works.
In interviews, Lowery has acknowledged that the white-sheeted ghost is “an inherently goofy image”. “I love the classic iconography of the bedsheet ghost. You can show this symbol to anyone around the world and they know instantly what it represents.” In the hospital, in those first disorientated moments of C’s afterlife, a door opens before him – or rather, a rectangle of pure whiteness opens up and expands on the screen. C stands looking at it. He does not step into it. It closes. Did he just make a choice? To hang around for a while? Do ghosts have agency like that?
It’s this “hanging around” that is the thematic locus of Lowery’s investigation: what is duration, and what is presence, and what does it mean to haunt and be haunted? After leaving the morgue, C paces steadily across open fields, the folds of his sheet dragging, somehow touchingly, in the mud. Finally he arrives back home, where M is now alone. C observes her in her stillness and her grief. Henceforth, she will be separated forever from his own long passage of muteness and bewilderment.
This is, you will not be surprised to learn, an extremely quiet film; if you don’t want to disturb your fellow cinema-goers, then perhaps forgo popcorn at this one. M’s form of sorrow at the sudden loss of her lover is a kind of perfect blankness that looks, on the surface, almost Zen-like. Lowery’s understated, methodical parsing of this goes as follows: First, in certain camera angles, we’ll see M alone in the house, in her frozen grief. (In one scene she eats a pie that a friend left for her on the kitchen table, one laborious mouthful after the other until most of it is gone. It feels overbaked, excuse the pun.) Then Lowery changes the angle and the frame: now C is there, in the back or to the side, standing somewhat innocuously.
So it’s about C now: his ontological status. He is pure observer. He does not interact. He does not seem to know yet that he can. Composer Daniel Hart’s mournful cello and organ propels all this along. As the film’s methodology develops, and as we realise we’re not waiting for scares, we start to feel we have a front-row seat to an at times interesting meditation about presence and absence.
One day, C sees a ghost in the window of the neighbouring house. “Hello,” it says, waving. (The “conversation” takes place in subtitles.) “I’m waiting for someone.” “Who?” asks C. “I don’t remember,” says the neighbour.
It’s a glorious scene, incongruously comedic. And yet at the same time it’s a heartbreakingly lonely moment, dramatically alive for all its minimalism. Philip Gröning’s documentary Into Great Silence (2005), about Carthusian monks in a monastery in the French Alps, is a film about meditation that itself becomes an exercise in meditation. A Ghost Story, a film about waiting, enacts that waiting in its compositional patience and in the very DNA of its shot choices.
By the end of the first act, M will drive away to her new life. C stays behind. The implication seems to be that he has forgotten by now – or is starting the long process of forgetting – who or what he is, and what he is doing in the house. Perhaps ghosts are meant to exist without a sense of rational purpose. (Also, as the house recedes in the background, M at the steering wheel, it’s hard to imagine C under the bedsheet running after her up the driveway and yelling, “Wait for me!” Or jumping breathlessly into the back seat of her car.)
The years pass. New owners come and go. Children sense C’s presence more than adults do – except when he’s feeling a little antsy and poltergeisty. “When I was little and we used to move all the time,” M had told him when he was still alive, “I’d write these notes, and I would fold them really small, and I would hide them.” “What did they say?” asks C. “They were just, like, things I wanted to remember,” says M, “so that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me waiting.” Later, when he’s a ghost, C watches her slip just such a message into a crack in the wall. Every now and then he reapplies himself to the task of extracting it. But he’s a little like a dog now: easily distracted, as people, and events, and years, come and go, and he keeps being interrupted at the task.
The singer Will Oldham has a cameo, as a verbose party guest in what is now a share house. “We build our legacy piece by piece,” he philosophises, “and maybe the whole world will remember you, or maybe just a couple of people. You do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone.” In a film that otherwise contains about five pages of dialogue, the scene feels like a densely verbal anomaly. The problem is that Oldham’s monologue comes across as a way for the director to cram in a bunch of his offcut thoughts. It doesn’t really fit in with A Ghost Story’s narrative structure or, worse, with its leisurely texture and pacing, which echo the films of Yasujirō Ozu. What’s more, Lowery has already shown us what Oldham’s character tells us – half an hour earlier, when M folded her tiny note into the crack.
Like or leave the film’s potential preposterousness, there is nevertheless a pleasantly languid reverie at play here – a reminder of the passage of time. Of death and sorrow. Everywhere, people want to leave traces; A Ghost Story reminds us how no trace really lasts. Hats off in any case to any film that nudges us to ponder even if only for a moment the rapturous terrors of geological, let alone cosmological, time. Rarely have text and subtext been so fused: the film doesn’t just operate as memento mori – its central character is one, unadorned and primitive. It’s not that C doesn’t have character depth. It’s that he isn’t really a character at all. He’s the fading out of a consciousness. He’s the ouroboros, enacting an infinite circularity. Your own death is not coming to you, he tells us. It is always there. Waiting for you to arrive.