The concept of moving on can be daunting and scary, but you could say that it’s what keeps us alive. It ensures that the human race continues to move forward and not backwards. A Ghost Story explores this concept and has it as the core of the film.
The film, directed by David Lowery, tells the story of a ghost (played by Casey Affleck), that after his death, goes back to the house he shared with his wife (played by Rooney Mara) to watch her.
The slow pace of the film reminded me of John Carpenter’s Halloween and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, where the cinematography replaces the dialogue to tell the story, either by the camera’s subjective movements that instruct the audience where to look, or by the stillness of the shots that are used to let the actions unfold within the frame itself.
Halloween is a very quiet film, and the camera, that many times operates as Michael Myers’ point of view, pans and tilts to let the actions happen inside the frame; It Follows copies that, not rushing the actions and giving room and time for them to unfold at their own pace.
Another similarity that A Ghost Story has with these 2 films is the importance placed at the home. Halloween, of course, uses many houses throughout the film, but the main centre of importance is placed at the Myers’ House — the notorious haunted house in the small community.
It Follows, however, does not put much importance on the house itself, but it still plays a big part indeed. In both films, the house is a place where the characters want to be, but they’re certainly not safe havens of any sort!
In A Ghost Story, the ghost comes back to the house he shared with his wife to watch her and to be near her. We learn at the end of the film that Affleck’s character loved the house, however, what was once homely and safe, is now a site where his ghost is trapped and unable to move on, as he watches his wife progressing with her life without him.
Both films, as well as A Ghost Story, use cinematography and score to build tension. The use of open shots and camera movements are constantly used in all three films. A Ghost Story is a very silent film, and relies mainly on the feeling that is conveyed from the actors and the ghost to provide the narrative.
There were actually many times during the film where I could not understand what Casey Affleck was saying, but it did not matter as much as his and Mara’s subtle acting. The pair have such a strong chemistry in the film that the camera often felt like intruder in the couple’s intimate moments.
Even though Affleck’s character is a musician, there are maybe three or four scenes with music that end up being both diegetic and extradiegetic. The eerie score in the film comes from the ghost’s feelings as it intensifies when he feels threatened or sad. Lowery plays with the importance of words and sounds when he makes the decision of not using subtitles during scenes with a Spanish-speaking family, but uses subtitles to explain the dialogue between two ghosts.
A Ghost Story is an experience of time. The concept of which is not experienced sequentially, rather it is how we, as an audience, experience it along with the characters. Moreover, Lowery, who is also the editor of the film, seems to play with the plasticity of filmmaking. He combines that with his own idea of time, and elongates scenes to a nine-minute shot of nothing much happening. But then, towards the end of the film, the editing allows for the time to go 100 years into the future in a matter of minutes.
Lowery takes the playfulness of time in cinema and manages to extend it into the narrative itself. Time not only becomes a concept we experience and are hostages of, but also almost a character in the film, even more important than human characters with lines and full dialogues.
A Ghost Story is about entrapment, for both the ghost and the other characters. The ghost is framed alongside windows, as he looks through it, and within doorframes, meaning he is stuck in one place, unable to move forward or backwards and peering into something he wants to belong in, somewhere he wants to go.
However, as I mentioned before, he is trapped in the house. Mara’s character is also looking through windows, as she gazes and wishes she were somewhere else. We learn throughout the film that her character wanted to move to a different house, and, after her husband’s death she makes a decision to does just that. The house is shown in her rear-view mirror as she drives away, symbolising her moving on both literally and symbolically.
The film uses what’s called the ‘Academy ratio’ to convey the feeling of entrapment to the audience, as it is very conforming and claustrophobic — especially when compared with contemporary films that are always shot and shown in a rectangular form.
A lot has already been talked about as to which genre, or indeed sub-genre, A Ghost Story sits in. I don’t necessarily think that it’s a love story, or a story about grief, per se. Rather, it plays in the realm between “Ghost Story” versus “Story About Grief”, because, of course, for the figure of a ghost to arise, there needs to be a death. And this death needs to be felt by someone.
In the film, this process is shown through the death of Affleck’s character and the process of grief experienced by Mara’s. However, this is only a third of the film. We follow the ghost’s path until we realise this is not necessarily the husband’s ghost. The story is not about one particular ghost, but uses what happens to this couple to tell a larger tale.
Therefore, the film is about a feeling that is common to everyone, rather than one particular character and his or her story. It is a film to be experienced. It asks questions that it does not necessarily answer. Such as how do you move on after the death of loved one? What, if anything, keeps us alive after we are gone? A memory someone has of us? And what happens once this memory fades?
The film has a melancholy and out-of-place-ness that is heavily portrayed by the infantilised figure of the ghost in a white sheet. The ghost moves around very slowly, watching, unable to be noticed and aware of all the things he is missing. He watches as the world moves on after his death and we, the audience, realise that the film is an essay about everyone else’s life. We only exist as we are remembered. And we are part of a world that is bigger than us and does not stop after we are gone.