Every once in a while, a movie comes along that is not really a movie.
Technically, yes, it is a movie, but the experience I have watching it is something different. Upon viewing Lars Von Trier’s Dogville in theaters, I felt like I’d just seen a very intimate and powerful stage production, not a film. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was a little like that, too — the fact that time really is unfolding over the years for these actors, along with their characters, wipes the usual artifice of cinema away.
A Ghost Story is the latest such film. I liken seeing it to going to an artist’s exhibition — the scenes are like individual pieces. You stop there for a minute or two, think about what you’re seeing, what it makes you feel… and then move on.
Despite the word appearing in its title, A Ghost Story isn’t a “story,” exactly. The characters are broadly sketched, stand-ins for humanity at large. Casey Affleck stars as “C,” the titular ghost, performing under a white sheet with eye holes — the kind that might be a cheap, last-minute Halloween costume (though I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone dressed up like that). Rooney Mara plays “M,” his left-behind girlfriend (maybe wife?). Following his death, C’s ghost stalks out of the morgue and heads back home to his girlfriend, observing as she mourns. As in most ghost stories, he can’t communicate with her or touch her, and she has no idea he’s there. Occasionally, he is capable of some poltergeist-style mischief, but only when he’s very upset, it seems.
You might find the fact that Casey Affleck is delivering most of his performance under a bedsheet ridiculous. It is ridiculous, in the abstract, though it’s surprising how rarely A Ghost Story finds humor in this. (Only two brief scenes featuring subtitles really highlight the absurdity of the situation.) Somehow, this blank white nothing manages to make us feel for him all the more.
On paper, A Ghost Story sounds like the setup for a Ghost-like tale of a man trying to reach out to his beloved from the beyond. You could see it that way. The way I experienced the film, though, it’s not so much about death, but about time… and grief, but not the kind of grief you’d expect.(I suggest experiencing the film for yourself, if you’re interested in doing so, before reading on.)
A Ghost Story is primarily concerned with memory — specifically, the sentimentality we attach to where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and who we’ve been with. Losing a lover in an unexpected accident is, perhaps, the most extreme kind of breakup,but the grief C and M feel in this film could easily be about a much simpler parting of ways, or any form of painful moving on in life. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara’s characters haunt each other after they’re separated. The ghost literally haunts M’s house, while C declines to “go to the light” because he prefers to dwell in the comfort of the past. A flashback tells us more about his reluctance to accept change — M wants to leave their house, and C doesn’t. (He gets his wish… and so does she.)
The argument highlights two different approaches to holding onto the past. M chooses to let go and move on, but that doesn’t mean the ghosts of her past don’t linger. C chooses to stay with what’s familiar. There doesn’t seem to be anything physically binding him to the house, but he doesn’t follow her when she goes out. When she leaves, he waits for her to come back. When she moves, he stays.
It’s not really M herself that C wants or needs. M’s life goes on, and C has no interest in learning where she’ll go from here. All he wants is his experience of her, the memory of what they shared together. For C, clinging to the nostalgia of the past is preferable to looking into the future, and risking it not being as good. (That’s true before he’s dead, too, which is why a more literal version of this story is imaginable — in which C is still alive and makes the same choice… to stay in the house when she leaves him.)A Ghost Story intentionally lacks specificity, because it doesn’t ultimately matter why C feels a connection to this house, and whatever good times they had there. The house stands in for anything we feel nostalgia for, an object or a person or an era. Our pasts are haunted by things no one else can see, no one knows are there.
That’s what memories are. Objects, places, moments and people are important to us, and the “ghosts” of what they mean imbue them with a sense of meaning. Tenants attach deeply personal feeling to a house, but then they leave, and the next tenant sees none of what was there before. They make their own memories, which have nothing to do with what happened there before. C’s ghost represents that sentiment, something intangible no one else could ever observe. Ghosts like C are littered throughout our pasts. No one else will ever see them, or know what they mean to us. That experience is ours alone.
In another flashback, C shares a piece of music he’s produced. M listens patiently, but doesn’t seem moved. She doesn’t feel what he feels. Later, after his death, she listens to the song again, and she does feel something… but what she feels is different than what he felt, or maybe the same thing but too late. The emotions that feel so real are not real to anyone but us. Sometimes, two people seem to share the same thing — love — but do they? Is it really the same thing? Is this a shared experience, or are both parties experiencing it in entirely different ways? There’s no way to ever know.
Time passes very differently in A Ghost Story than any other movie I can think of — sometimes excruciatingly slowly, and sometimes in a blur. The more time that passes after C’s death, the less power he has to “haunt” anyone, or anything. Eventually, the ghost — representing C’s impression upon the world around him while he was alive — becomes obsolete. (Another character briefly enters the story to deliver a monologue about this, which might sum the film’s themes up a bit too neatly.)A Ghost Story takes a radical, jarring turn in its third act, becoming weightier and more portentous than before (somehow). C’s ghost witnesses an event from the distant past. More than anything else in this unusual film, this threw me for a loop… if the ghost is meant to be C’s memories, or the memories other have of him, or his impression on the mortal coil… well, how could that exist before he was even here? Perhaps the point is that as much weight as we give our own grief, there is a history that came before us that is equally raw and wrenching; eventually, we all get swept up into the past, the forgotten sadness of what came before.
There’s nothing special or unique about this particular ghost.
The above is personal interpretation of the film. David Lowery’s offbeat film is open to plenty of other discourse, although it does occasionally narrow its focus (like in that monologue). I don’t know if we’re supposed to believe in A Ghost Story as a literal ghost story, or if it’s looking to cohesively “make sense” from start to finish. For me, the various scenes are ruminations on connected themes.
A Ghost Story isn’t what I’d call an entertaining film. As I mentioned, it’s barely a film at all. Rather, it’s an experience that will reward viewers who sit and have a dialogue with it, who don’t feel the need to grasp every beat of the “story.” It is also best for those willing to be bummed out for 90 minutes, losing themselves in deep thoughts about mortality, memory, and the cosmic pointlessness of human lives.
Before the credits rolled, I had the thought that this could be the most interesting movie I’ve ever seen. Almost two days later, I still can’t think of anything that offers an equivalent experience.