‘A Ghost Story’ haunts viewers with themes of life, love, and loss

 By Michelle Wheeler

July 28, 2017

A Ghost Story is one of those movies some people will call “interesting” in a tone that suggests what they want to say is “I don’t get it.”

In the latest from director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon), Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as an unnamed couple who live in a house that seems to be haunted. Mara’s character wants to move out, but Affleck’s can’t quite let go of his attachment to the place. When he dies tragically in a car crash, his spirit returns to the house and continues to be bound to it, even after the woman moves on, time passes, and other people move in and out.

Casey Affleck in A Ghost Story. Courtesy of A24

As a ghost, the man exists under a heavy sheet, one he gets from the morgue where his body was taken after he died. The costume should be comical. It should be outlandish, and yet I was never once tempted to laugh. That is a testament to the performance Affleck delivers from under the sheet (yes, it’s really him under there), and an accomplishment for Lowery to have created something that is unique and convincing in spite of working with what could have come off as a visual gag.

Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo pins the viewer to their seat as firmly as the ghost is rooted to his house. The camera almost never cuts or moves when you think it’s going to, and sometimes, within a scene, it doesn’t cut or move at all. Much has been made over the “pie scene,” a four-minute-long single take of Mara’s character eating an entire pie on the kitchen floor in the midst of her grief. The execution of that scene doesn’t feel out of place in the context of the film. In another moment, the couple settles into bed for the night, and the camera lingers on them past the point of propriety, through a moment of intimacy, and well into a feeling of intrusion. For much of the film, the ghost is left with nothing to do but observe the world around him, unwilling perhaps to interact with its occupants, and unable to leave the space he inhabits. Forcing the viewer into a similar experience with the cinematography creates empathy with the character in an organic and unexpectedly beautiful way.

Courtesy of A24

The tone of this film is often weighty and melancholy. It is, after all, the story of a person who has died and who maybe wasn’t quite ready to. Scenes are intercut with visuals of the distant corners of the galaxy, suggesting the story is universal rather than particular to this moment and these characters. A central thesis of the film is that things and people die, yet time goes on, and it asks its viewers to question what, then, makes life worth living.

For all of that, though, I did not leave the theater feeling sad. There’s just enough hope in this world Lowery’s created that neither life nor the after-life feel pointless.

A Ghost Story is extremely well-crafted and well-acted, and has only a few minor missteps in the third act that keep it from being practically perfect. It elicits such viscerally personal reactions from its viewers that it would be difficult to call it “good” or “bad” in any way that makes sense from one person to the next. It is, however, endlessly “interesting.”

Courtesy of A24

You Should Also Read: Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House. The film begins with a quote from this short story, and the two serve as wonderful companion pieces.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5

Read next: 

In this article