A Ghost Story (2017)

A Ghost Story by director David Lowery, starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, is an unmissable, unique experience.

Ghost in the Machine

by Alexa Dalby

A Ghost Story

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

A Ghost Story is a deceptively profound film like no other. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are a couple, M and C, living in a remote low-rise weatherboard house in the Texan countryside that’s prone to unexplained lumps and bumps in the night. She wants to move from it, he doesn’t. When he’s killed in a car crash, she takes one last look at his body in the morgue and covers his face with the sheet. After she leaves, the sheet rises and takes on a life of its own. Its appearance is the verging-on-the-ridiculous, stereotypical childlike image familiar from Caspar the friendly ghost, a white shape with two black ovals for eyes. Then the ghostly being trudges the miles across muddy grasslands back to the house it lived in, trailing the sheet like a train behind it, sadness and determination pathetically evident in every droop of its shoulders.

As a ghost, C is unable to leave the place and person he loved when he was alive: he can only watch M’s grief as she goes about her daily life – but she can’t see him and he can’t communicate with her. As time passes, he sadly watches M eventually move on to a new life, but the ghost is still tied to the house – to its location but not tied in time, which expands and contracts as he experiences it. Over the years, other people move in and out of the house, families and groups of hipsters (featuring a monologue by Will Oldham), and he sees the high rise offices the house is transformed into in the future and what was in its place in the pioneer days of the virgin prairie in the past.

Among the many underlying themes that are embedded deeply throughout this extraordinary film are love, loss, grief, individual death, the death of the universe, eternity and – linking everything – the urge for communication that makes human beings human and which transcends death and the passage of time. It’s shot in a rarely used 1:33 aspect ratio which gives the image on screen a boxy feel, and rounded corners emphasise the almost home-movie intimacy. C is a musician and there is notable mood-changing music similar to his compositions for crucial scenes.

What starts as a human drama and then becomes an epic story of humanity is told by director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) through patience-testing very long, slow takes that reinforce the impression of time passing. One long take in particular is much commented on: in a four-and-a-half-minute take Rooney Mara, sitting on the floor against the kitchen sink unit, joylessly devours a whole pie left for her by her landlady after the death of her husband. The extreme length of time that the camera focuses on her allows the audience through her actions to experience her grief.

Mara and Affleck are excellent. Though Affleck is under a sheet for most of the film (art director David Pink stood in for later take-ups), he somehow conveys a range of emotions through subtle positioning of his body underneath – there’s sadness, regret, curiosity, hope and yearning. There’s even a conversation (subtitled) with another neighbouring ghost, who’s wearing a flowered sheet, which is simultaneously ludicrous, bizarre and unbelievably touching – as are many things in this unique film. It’s hard to describe the experience of watching it – just watch it.

A Ghost Story premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and Sundance London and is released on 11 August 2017 in the UK.

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