“A Ghost Story” is a story about ghosts, but everything about this small art house film is designed to challenge your views about the supernatural. The film is haunting and intense, but is not designed to be “scary” in the conventional sense. But as you begin to consider the implications of what filmmaker David Lowery shows you on screen, you may begin challenging everything you thought you knew about the afterlife and the linear march of time. Here are all the reasons why “A Ghost Story” will haunt you.
#1: “A Ghost Story” uses unconventional storytelling techniques
If you think about most horror movies, they are designed to shock and frighten you, usually with scenes of gore or some other spectacle. “A Ghost Story,” by contrast, does not rely on any CGI special effects. Any special effects, such as they are, are quite minimal.
In fact, it’s arguable that the only real special effect in the movie is Oscar-winning actor Casey Affleck wearing a white bed sheet – the kind you might wear for Halloween – over his head for much of the movie. He is largely mute, using only his movements and gestures to signify what he is feeling.
Director David Lowery purposely lingers on scenes for far longer than feels comfortable. For example, after the loss of her husband (known only as “C”), the wife (known only as “M), played by Rooney Mara, eats a pie in near-total silence for four whole minutes. Moreover, Lowery often shoots at a distance, and that helps to create a certain type of relationship between the viewer and the people on screen.
To top it off, he uses a square aspect ratio, giving us the sensation that we are viewing the action through some kind of keyhole. This is immediately disturbing – it’s almost as if we are voyeuristically involved in studying how a woman is dealing with the death of her husband. All of the action largely takes place in just a single house, forcing us to focus on what is happening right in front of us.
It’s really the case that there is no final spectacle, no final grisly moment when we come face-to-face with the occult. Instead, we are shown the passage of time, and the ghost staying anchored to his spot, seemingly immobilized by his own grief. With each new tenant in the house that C and M once occupied, the ghost remains fixed in place. In fact, that’s literally the case – the ghost almost seems to be anchored in place.
#2: “A Ghost Story” is a ghost story as well as a haunting love story
With most love stories – even tragic ones – the audience knows much about the characters. We know why they fell in love, we know a history of their romance, and we most certainly know their names. But this film is very different – it is a love story, as the ghost waits patiently for generations to pass so that he can be reunited with his former wife. He almost seems stuck in a purgatorial way station, waiting for events to play out.
But here’s the thing – we don’t know the names of the characters. In the credits, they are known only as C (for Casey Affleck) and M (for Rooney Mara). We don’t know much about their previous life – or even if they were married. They are generic couples, and that’s what makes the film so supremely haunting – this is a story about C and M, but it is also a story of us. C and M could be any couple caught up in tragedy.
David Lowery has said that he was moved to make this film on a very limited budget ($100,000) after an argument with his wife. They had argued about mortality, about the life of the soul, and how certain places and spots in time are preserved over time. Moving from a house, he seems to be saying, means leaving these shared moments. He also seems to be making the case that emotions such as love and loss live on long after the body is gone.
#3: “A Ghost Story” is a supernatural story of space and time
You could make the case that the real heroes of this movie are not the characters, but rather, the house itself. It is the house where the ghost lingers on for decades. And, as we see with each new generation of tenant (such as a single mom with two kids), there is something to human life that is very short, fleeting and transient.
At one point in this movie, a bohemian intellectual rambles on about the doomed efforts of humanity to leave lasting evidence of its life on Earth. But, alas, that permanence is not to be found. Instead, the best we can hope for, the film seems to be saying, is that we’ll linger on in some odd half-state between the physical world and the spiritual world. It is not heaven, and it is not hell. It is not even purgatory. It is a lost moment, and that is all.
By the end of the film, certain scenes start to make sense. We realize that things that go “bump in the night” do so for a reason. In one scene, for example, the ghost gets visibly upset when his former wife begins to get romantically involved with someone else.
There are so many different ways to interpret “A Ghost Story,” and nearly every moviegoer will leave the film with a different view of what just happened. The film, undoubtedly, will polarize audiences. There will be some who love it, because it is so unique, new and moving. And there will be others who hate it, viewing it as being too precious and too affecting, and not nearly “scary” enough.
But one thing is clear – it is impossible to watch the film and not be deeply affected. The film is disturbingly intense, with the ability to transform slow motion takes of grief and sadness into moments that will touch your soul. “A Ghost Story” will haunt you, and you will want to discuss why with your friends and family.