A Ghost Story: Good Grief, by David Bax

6 Jul

With its central figure, a ghost straight out of a Charlie Brown cartoon (bedsheet, eyeholes, rounded-off head), and the 1.37:1 aspect ratio of its frame, David Lowery’s majestic and meditative new film, A Ghost Story, sometimes comes across as a bit of a throwback. I’m sure, though, that Lowery would prefer the term “timeless.” In the totality of his vision, he gives us an hour and a half or so not to grapple with the eternal but to embrace it. Stretching off in every direction as far as the mind’s eye can comprehend, we see that the human experience always has been and always will be filled with constant death and sadness but also, and in equal measure should we so choose, with beauty and transcendence.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as a married couple considering moving out of their nondescript exurban home. Before they get a chance, however, Affleck’s character (neither of them has a name in the film) is killed in a car accident. While a devastated Mara soldiers on with her life, Affleck returns to the house as a ghost, standing around and silently observing the hole in the world he’s left behind.

After Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, this is the second major work in the past year to deal with ghosts. While neither is a true horror film, Assayas devotes more time to frightening the audience. That’s not to say A Ghost Story is without its eeriness, however, especially early on. Even before Affleck’s specter arrives, the dread creeps in when the couple hear unexplained noises in the middle of the night. “Is something there?” one of them asks. The question doesn’t go away for the viewer. Seemingly benign things like the way an unseen streetlight across from the front yard reflects off an old trunk suddenly seem suspicious and otherworldly.

After all that, it’s disturbing—vulgar, even—that when the true horror comes, it comes in the form of something so banal and empirical as a car crash. A Ghost Story shifts (and not for the last time) into a depiction of grief. At first it’s visceral, with Mara consuming an entire pie at once, starting at the counter with a fork and ending up on the floor, digging into the tin with her bare hands. Eventually, her anguish settles into the hollow grind of living. True sadness doesn’t take the form of torment but of apathy. Grief is not a living thing; it is a marker of absence, a threadbare patch that can’t quite cover the tear. The tragedy of happiness is that we lack the perspective to appreciate it until it’s gone. And it will, someday, any day, be gone.

A Ghost Story could be described as contemplative. That’s true but it’s also euphemistic. What that really means is that the movie is quiet, something so few films are allowed to be. With the exception of a drunken monologue centerpiece, there’s very little dialogue at all. Lowery’s method here is sensory deprivation as formalism, allowing us to feel as increasingly alienated and unmoored as Affleck’s ghost does.

And unmoored is exactly where Lowery wants us. The deeper we get into the nothingness of the ghost’s existence, the more Lowery is able to present us with views of history and time that are abstracted from one another. It’s terrifying, almost dehumanizing, to contemplate how little control we have in the vastness of reality. Things are never going to stop changing whether we want them to or not. At the same time, it’s freeing. A Ghost Story tells us to rejoice because, no matter how long we’re stuck in the same place, every moment is an opportunity to begin anew.

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