Whew. It is late at night and the tears and snot are still dried up on my face after watching A Ghost Story, a beautiful film written and directed by David Lowery. It stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck as a young couple, named C and M respectively, who experience a deep loss when C dies in a car accident. C comes back to life as a ghost and remains in the house where he and M used to live when he was alive. I don’t know what it is about A24 films, but I have yet to see a film released or produced by A24 Films that I didn’t like. Lady Bird, Moonlight, Obvious Child, The Lobster, Room. And now A Ghost Story, a beautiful reflective tale about how we cope with grief and memory. I’m not surprised then that this indie production company has received 25 Academy Award nominations for its films and won Academy Awards for six of its films.
First and foremost, what makes this film so incredible is its lack of noises. Since it’s no longer in theaters, I suggest you watch it wearing headphones because the noises are often muffled and for the most part, there is a significant lack of dialogue, even more so than The Lobster. The film relies on a lack of noise in order to help us properly reflect on the subject matter. It may seem silly at first that Casey Affleck is walking around wearing a large white sheet, almost child-like in nature (remember the old cliches about kids wearing white sheets on Halloween?). However, I remembered C’s body lying limp on the wheel of the car after he crashes and dies, and then had to remind myself that the ghost was C looking back on his life after his death. It reminded me of The Lovely Bones, a haunting novel by Alice Sebold about a girl who is raped and murdered and watches from her personal Heaven as her friends and family struggle to cope with her death.
One example in which silence is a powerful tool for eliciting emotion from the audience is a scene in the film in which M is eating a pie that a real estate agent gave her to send condolences for C’s death in the car crash. The scene lasts for a good 5-10 minutes, but it disturbs you gradually until you’re sitting there crying with her. You see her throw the note in the trash, and then eat the pie, then gradually she furiously digs her fork into it until, five minutes in, we see her eat the pie in silence from the side and slowly she breaks down into tears while C, the ghost, just stands and watches as an invisible spirit. This was the moment when I finally broke down during the film and couldn’t stop crying afterwards. This scene, although one of many deep scenes in the movie, really hits you if you stop everything and look closely. It is an incredibly painful moment to watch her grief just shatter her slowly from inside, but the entire silence of that scene allows the viewer to really see the psychological impact that grief can have on our physical and emotional well-being. The absence of dialogue was perfect because we get to focus on M’s facial expressions and how they alone convey all of the frustration and pain and other indescribable emotions that she feels after C’s death.
Another scene that was extremely important to the film was when C walks into a room of the house where a bunch of random strangers are having a house party, and one of the people there gives a monologue about faith and forgetting. This person talks about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and says that yeah, sure, “we build our legacy piece by piece, and maybe the whole world will remember you, or maybe just a couple of people, but you do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone.” The overall monologue is very dark and cynical and basically says that someone can write a book, record a song or do anything to leave their children and their children’s children for years to come, but they, like everyone else, are going to pass away someday and will no longer be able to enjoy the legacy that person left, like with Beethoven. The guy says that Beethoven passed away and people still listen to his music, but in the long run, his legacy doesn’t have any meaning in and of itself and that leaving a legacy is essentially hopeless. Basically, the guy is saying, people forget about you after you die, even when you leave a long legacy (I’m pretty sure C was the one messing with the lightbulb above that dude’s head as a way of saying “Forget? You wanna bet?”) While I did have to recognize the tough reality of his philosophical reflection on life, I remember a quote from Maya Angelou. She once said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” While it is true that humans are mortal and we won’t get to enjoy the art, books, movies and music that someone leaves behind after we ourselves die, what matters is the fact that people, when they are alive, will never forget how someone made them feel, and clearly C made M feel so much even if she might not remember everything that happened during their time together. When C looks back on his past self with M, he shows both the good times and the rocky times of their marriage, and as we see with the pie eating scene and further scenes with M coping with C’s death, he made a significant impact on her.
Overall, this film requires a lot of patience. It’s not Ghostbusters, it’s not Casper the Friendly Ghost, and it’s not A Christmas Carol. They could have made C a cartoonish ghost that says cliched lines and goes “OOOOO I’m a ghost”. But they didn’t. In fact, they turned the ghost caricature on its head by showing how C suffers so much psychologically, mentally and spiritually when he realizes that his wife has moved on after his death, that the house no longer will be the same, that different people move in, and the whole time this happens he wants to be seen, heard, even do things over again in his life. However, the thing that is most painful about this film is the fact that C is a ghost and thus no one can physically see him unless he makes things move without them actually seeing him. In a haunting but very sad scene, he sees a single mom move into the house with her two kids, and he watches them have a wonderful time together eating breakfast, playing toys and celebrating Christmas. This probably makes C sad because he didn’t have any kids with M before he died, and so he opens and closes doors, but ends up scaring the kids and the mom, and, because he is frustrated with not being seen, smashes all of the plates and cups in their cupboard. I cried because C is trying to deal with all of these changes and it’s just really hard for him because he just wanted a normal life with M and now it’s gone. C’s silence speaks volumes in and of itself, and that’s what makes the film so unique. He finds another ghost who lives in the house next door to his, and they communicate with each other through their prolonged eye contact, and this prolonged eye contact is translated into literal subtitles, a language that only they can understand, a language of grief.
Overall, this film, like The Lobster, is a film I will never forget. I don’t think I can see it twice because I cried throughout the movie and don’t think I can take crying anymore. It just reminded me to appreciate people while they are alive and also celebrating someone’s life and appreciating them even after they pass away. I have been to quite a few memorial services for people, and while I am very sad, I appreciate the times I spent with that person. The film shows that change in constant and while it’s hard to move on, you have to do it in order to keep living. It was a tough message to swallow throughout the film, but it needed to be said. Like I said earlier, it takes a lot of patience to admire and appreciate the film because it goes against traditional ghost stories and redefines the meaning of a “ghost story”. Death is a scary topic, and no amount of cartoon ghosts is going to fix that. But the film’s reflection on death is what makes it so haunting and yet so incredibly poignant. It is emotionally hard to process, but it is definitely worth a watch.
A Ghost Story. 1 hr 32 min. Rated R for brief language and a disturbing image.