David Lowery pens ultimate ode to the loneliness of the afterlife
Photo: Casey Affleck as C (center) in ‘A Ghost Story’
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
The main poster for David Lowery’s new indie feature “A Ghost Story” defines the stark simplicity of his take on the haunted-house genre. At first glance his ghost is a childish figure, a body draped in a white sheet. However, the framing (and its deceptively straightforward use of text) offers hints of complexity that the film delivers with depth and precision not usually seen in the typical scare-driven tales of the supernatural. This ghost will truly haunt, not just the living, but time and space.
Lowery allows us brief glimpses into the life of C (newly-minted Academy Award-winner Casey Affleck), a musician and loving husband to M (Rooney Mara). Their love is quiet and runs deep, a broad Mississippi with length and breadth. When they lay next to each other, we feel the strength of the current as it flows between them. These two are one in ways that most couples can’t dream of being, even when they argue.
Most film portrayals of love resort to cute romantic expressions and a chaste, tasteful coupling. C and M give voice to what moves their hearts, minds, and souls—the passions that drive them to be the people they are (and that the other obviously loves so much). M shares a story about leaving notes behind in her childhood homes, tucked away in the cracks and crevices of doorframes, as reminders to herself (in case she ever returned to these spots) or to inhabitants who followed her. Like time capsules filled with feelings or her secret longings, the tiny missives are more than a trail of breadcrumbs; they serve to ground these places, these homes that are cherished spaces, shared by other families, containing a multitude of lives and loves beyond her own.
Something in that story stays with C, giving life and purpose to him after he dies. Lowery doesn’t show us the catastrophic event itself, just the aftermath, revealed in a slow, casual tracking shot. The victim of a car crash, nothing remains, except his broken and bloodied body slumped over the wheel. And then, M stands next to him at the morgue, full of grief, aching to speak to him once more, to have him touch her.
When she leaves, Lowery maintains his vigil over the covered body, holding on until the sheet rises and turns, surveying its surroundings. It is not alive, yet seems aware of its state. What is there to do, it seems to wonder, leading it to do the only thing it can. The ghost heads home, where its heart is.
It watches M eat a whole pie, watches as this action tracks the processing of grief, the newfound isolation and longing, the absence that can never disappear for her, no matter how she tries to fill the hungry void.
Lowery presents the rest of the story from the perspective of C’s ghost, capturing his rage and inability to have a meaningful impact on the world around him. He haunts this space, the last place he shared with M, even after she moves on, like she always has. The ghost can’t separate himself from this place, but he comes to realize that he’s not alone. He spies another presence, although it becomes clear that they cannot help each other deal with their states of being, since each of them is too caught up in its own quest to break free of the legacy that binds them.
And in a flash, the ghost stands as time moves on, forward and then circling back behind, to reveal snatches of C’s life before death, revealing traces of other ghosts stacking up on one another. In this movement, Lowery combines the truly haunting beauty of his images (recalling the essence of what makes Terrence Malick’s work so profoundly spiritual at its best) with a narrative reminiscent of Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.”
Never before has a filmmaker given a ghost this much of a chance to live again. This version of the afterlife offers us signs that, even in death, we have the chance to retain a true and abiding sense of what it means to be human. Which means that maybe the idea of eternity isn’t such a drag after all.