Friday Flicks: A Ghost Story
There is something brazen about telling a ghost story in 2017, the age of computer-generated everything, with a man dressed in a bedsheet with two droopy, cutout eyeholes.
Then again, there is also something a little unusual about a low-budget drama focused on two characters and a single location that also tries to tell the entire history of time and space, and then tries to figure out just how any single person can live meaningfully amidst such enormity and obsolescence.
Sure, The Tree of Life connected a Texan childhood with the age of dinosaurs. And Groundhog Day wrapped an existential crisis in romantic comedy. But did either of those movies have a bedsheet ghost? Not that I can recall.
A Ghost Story (2017), a somber, strange, audacious and intensely personal movie from director David Lowery, dares audiences to laugh at the simplicity of its design.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play a young couple living in a small, unassuming ranch house, presumably somewhere in the middle of the country. The land is dry and flat and extends to the horizon.
There is something unsettled about this relationship, a longing for something or someone or somewhere else that drives both man and woman into a shared but chasmic loneliness.
That’s about all the context we get.
Suddenly, one of them dies. An accident. But that partner doesn’t stay gone for long. He soon returns as a ghost, draped in nothing but a loose, hospital bedsheet and left with no means of expression, no mouth or fingers or eyebrows, except for two pitch-black, uneven, cutout eyeholes.
The rest of the movie follows this ghost as he stays put within the four walls of his old home and lays witness to a history that no longer includes him.
At first, the story is of his girlfriend, who mourns, reconciles, and departs. Then the story extends to future generations of inhabitants of this home.
Soon enough, civilization develops, decays, and reverts before his very eyeholes. Time becomes deeper, not longer, and his palpable fear and loneliness and longing envelop him like the sheet around his body, a sheet that becomes dirtier and more tattered the longer he is trapped in this purgatory.
2017 was a good year for direct, abstract, highly metaphorical movies about the inextricable connection between a couple and the home in which they live (see: Darron Aronofsky’s mother!)
But whereas mother! uses its grand, Gothic home as an extension of the confused, chaotic life of its protagonist, A Ghost Story does something a little bit different.
The home is simple and the lives lived within it are mundane. What is extraordinary, and overwhelming and tinctured with great sadness and beauty and hope, is the simple accumulation of infinite time in finite space.
The ghost witnesses so many, many stories, including his own, told on this single plot of land. None is more or less worthy of attention than the next. The way that each inhabitant leaves some impression of his or her existence on this space, however subtle or conspicuous that impression may be, allows for the creation of a human trail, a history, that in being witnessed can never truly be forgotten.
Lowery’s direction and editing, which alternate between long, unflinching takes and sudden, disorienting skips within time, reinforce exactly that normalness of the present and sublimity of presents strung together. Paired with Daniel Heart’s penetrating electronic score and Mara and Affleck’s ability to open themselves up to an all-consuming grief without overacting, the movie’s take on the steady passage of time is suffused with sorrow.
In a movie so simply and boldly constructed, even the sound of the ghost scratching at a door frame, trying to pry loose a reminder of his relationship, can trigger a cascade of emotional responses, from despair at his solitude to admiration at his persistence to hope that he will some day reach that token and achieve a certain level of peace.
A Ghost Story is a polarizing movie, in its stillness, in its ambition, in its focus on a ghost in a bedsheet. But therein lies the promise and the power of arthouse cinema: with a limited budget and narrative scope, to burrow deep within an individual’s experience of the world, and, through that focus, to dare to take the audience to the distant lengths of time and space, and back again.