A film succeeds inasmuch as it makes you feel something, or feel like you’ve just experienced something. A Ghost Story succeeds on both fronts.
When a director sets out to create a film, he or she has a finite number of tools at their disposal, and we typically think of these tools along the lines of dialogue, color, cinematography, characterization, casting, etc, but perhaps the most overlooked one is time.
Time can pull a viewer into a film in a way few other cinematic elements can. And David Lowery, writer and director of the ethereal A Ghost Story succeeds in using this tool to its full and longsuffering effect.
Part of the use of time in this film reflects the overall theme of the film: That time, and everything that happens within its span, is utterly pointless. It’s the book of Ecclesiastes rendered into a gripping visual display.
The plot is simple enough: A young couple, madly in love (though not without their flaws), moves into a home and odd things begin unraveling. They see random flecks of light dart or hover in the corner of their room, and eerie sounds resound from the house. We are not given access to much of their personalities, nor are we welcomed into the precise dynamics of their relationship, though these things are not necessary for the point of the film to ultimately be made.
The important thing to note in the early stages of the film, however, is that the shots are LONG. They do not relent. You are forced to watch Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara kiss gently in bed for at least three full minutes. You must watch her drag a piece of trash all the way from the house down the long driveway to the curb, then pause, then walk all the way back….then watch the house sit there for another minute.
In other words, time passes naturally in the introduction to the film.
Not long into the plot, the husband is killed in a car accident and we are only given the aftermath. We see his body resting lazily against the steering wheel. And then watch it a bit longer.
Then we see his corpse in the hospital lying beneath a white sheet. We watch as Mara comes in, looks at her late lover, and walks out. With prolonged expectation, his form lies on the table without a moving pixel in the frame for another solid minute until it bursts upward in fitful life.
And this is when the ghost is born.
It paces around the hospital, and at one point eternity seems to open up before him, but closes before he has a chance to enter. This causes him to walk back to his home and remain indefinitely. He watches his wife consume an entire pie in grief over another 5-minute shot, and the viewer senses an odd mix of curiosity and sympathy in the draped form.
It is not long, however, before the ghost begins to become more and more removed from the time he once inhabited. The shots of the film become much shorter, symbolizing his removal from time as experienced by the living, and we see episodic events occur before him. His wife soon moves out of the home with a new lover and a new family moves in. They slip from summer to Christmas in the blink of an eye, and then they are gone and new tenants occupy the small home.
The most haunting exchange is when Casey Affleck’s ghost—still a man draped in a simple white sheet with two black eye holes—looks out the window and sees another ghost in the window of the house next door. Through subtitles, the viewer is given their exchange:
“Hello,” says the neighbor.
“Hi,” replies Casey’s ghost.
“I’m waiting for someone.”
“I don’t remember.”
I got chills as that silent scene played out.
Within the functional world of the film, each ghost is only allowed to ‘rest in peace’ when their purpose has been fulfilled. For the neighbor, her purpose turns out to be realizing that the person she is waiting for will never arrive (more chills).
For Casey’s ghost, the relief is more hard earned. The last thing his wife does before leaving the house is write something on a tiny slip of paper, fold it up and slide it into a crack in the wall. For the rest of the film, Casey’s ghost is seen periodically hunched before the crack and clawing to get the piece of paper. All the future tenants are haunted by the terribly subtle sound of a ghost scratching at a wall.
As the film picks up, however, the long shots die away and time itself speeds up. The house is demolished and an office building is built. We see the ghost pace its halls as it is built, followed by a cut directly to its finished state with businessmen pacing its halls in a hurry.
The next scene is the end of all time, as a dystopian future is painted and the entire world is populated by flashing lights and high rises. And Casey jumps from one of their ledges, only to land on the same patch of land at the beginning of all time. Settlers are preparing to build a home there and as they do, a little girl from the covered wagon writes something on a slip of paper and slides it under a rock. Before Casey’s ghost can read it though, they are slaughtered by native Americans. In the next shot, their arrow-riddled corpses have rotted away and been overgrown by grass.
Time spins madly on once more until his wife once again slips the note into the wall and he can finally scrape at it enough to pull it free.
He uncrumples the note.
His sheet hollows and collapses to the ground and he is at rest.
His purpose in the cyclical spin of time has been realized and he is required to haunt the earth no more.
When the credits appeared at the end of this vastly silent film, I felt a mix of depression and existential angst. Not only did it take your emotions (and your expectations) and play hackie sack with them, but it painted a universe in which any straggling sense of purpose a human could scrape together will blow away with the infuriating march of time and the hopelessness of realizing one’s meaning.
On the one hand, if all this world is is a confused array of atoms which burped themselves into existence out of nothing, then yes, our mad march of history and time will utterly be worthless in the end. Every loving embrace and created art form will have been for naught, and will be lost to the annals of trivium. And in death, our identities will be as mysterious as a figure beneath a sheet.
On the other hand, however, if we were crafted with a longing for purpose, inheriting an image of the Creator Himself, and instructed to go forth and multiply our humanness, our creativity, our love and the work of our hands, then every movement we make has meaning. Every stroke of a pen has the potential to take the created order of things and rearrange them for better or for worse. As I’ve said in the past, Jesus breathes meaning into matter. History reveals her Creator just as much as a delicious meal or a breathtaking sunset.
A Ghost Story hearkens back to Garden State, which also portrays characters longing for significance and uniqueness. I remember the scene where Natalie Portman squeaks out a weird sound and contorts her body in an abnormal fashion, then explains to Zach Braff that no one else will ever be able to say they did that exact thing in that exact spot.
We are longing not only to be meaningful, but unique. Set apart. And in the utterly depressing and apathetic world painted by A Ghost Story, none of those things are possible. The dead forget the living and vice-versa.
The neighbor ghost remembers not whom they are waiting for.
And they never come.
I began the film expecting it to be a mourning of Casey’s character over the life he had and the woman he loved.
Instead, it was far more horrifying.
It was a removal of connection and of meaning. It was existence without purpose. It was a painful ripping of a human being from his identity. The outlook of the film is bleak, and the greatest form of sentiment one can muster in this universe is, if you can merely discover a few words left for you by someone you used to know, you will be fulfilled.
Yet this is not the mindset of the Christian. We have hope that yes, there is life after death, but it is not a departure from meaning. It is not a removal from the world of creativity, love and significance. Rather, because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (in a tangible body, not an ethereal, invisible sheet), all lives have meaning and all humans have hope.
We are not left lonely to wander the earth, forgetting who we are waiting for. No, we specifically pray along with the church universal, Marantha, come swiftly, Lord Jesus.