With great apprehension, and with expected criticism from my fellow culture loving cohorts, it pains me to say that I did not enjoy David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. That is not to say it is not a film worth watching. Like all great art, the audience’s response is subjective and the reasons behind my lack of connection with the atmospheric exploration of grief and time through Casey Affleck dressed in a sheet is one worth exploring.
I left the cinema, as I have stood in-front of certain modern art paintings. Perhaps I just didn’t get it, maybe I’m not as cultured as I’d like to think, or maybe I’m not the only one thinking that what I just witnessed was a bit too peculiar to fully resonate with me.
The film follows a young couple, M played by Rooney Mara and C by Casey Affleck (their characters remain nameless except for the credits), as they live a relatively normal life in American suburbia. She goes to work whilst he works on an indie album. They occasionally fight but, for the most part, they share a calm, intimate life. Then C dies in a car crash.
Following the accident, M is summoned to identify her partner’s body at the hospital. Once she leaves to delve into grief back at home, C jumps up from the bed and follows her, draped in a sheet with eyeholes cut out, and so A Ghost Story begins.
Although she can’t see him, C is now stuck to bear witness to M’s grief. He is stuck in the place where their happiness and love grew, and he is stuck there indefinitely.
Mara’s portrayal of the grieving M is stunning. Just as grief itself feels never-ending and relentless the scenes feel long and intimate. The ‘pie-scene’ where M devours a pie left to her by a concerned friend until she makes herself sick lasts for five of the most uncomfortable minutes in cinematic history. But, it feels like so much longer.
Perhaps it is the unexpectedness of A Ghost Story that I found most difficult to entirely connect with. After all, in several ways, horror is the most ‘expected’ of all genres. Despite the ‘unexpected’ jump scares, the suspense, gore, and pain of the mainstream horror fit a predictable filmic construction. Alternatively, A Ghost Story’s pain is encapsulated in its nothingness.
The terrifying explorations of an evil afterlife of the Paranormal Activity and Conjuring ‘ghost stories’ of mainstream cinema are predictable. We know what we’re going in for. It’s a form of horrific escapism and we do not expect to have the meaning of our own existence challenged.
The ability to deconstruct the human condition is where A Ghost Story and its recent post-horror contemporaries are important. Alongside films like It Follows, and It Comes at Night, it attempts to scare us via reflection on ourselves. These films challenge our own existential dread and the man-made cultural plagues that infect our own society.
Witnessing M’s grief feels long-winded until she moves and C is stuck in the home. He is left to now watch as other people inhabit a space that meant so much. This exploration of spatial history is profound, through the layers of memories we attach to places and the figurative ‘ghosts’ we leave behind.
Despite my admiration for spatial history, and genuine attempt to connect, I feel at this point I was lost in filmic translation. The lack of dialogue and continuous scenes of atmospheric looming music whilst C walked through various scenes of time and space felt exceptionally long-winded.
Once I felt like I ‘understood’ the meaning of A Ghost Story, I found it uncomfortable to continue. It seemed like the same message of time and grief could have been conveyed in a short-film. Once the love story and tragedy were over, it felt impossible to remain invested in this brooding posthumous man in a sheet.
But, perhaps that’s what Lowery wants from his audience. Just like human existence A Ghost Story is long, at times extremely challenging and uncomfortable and then over before we know it. The possibilities of what remains after we are gone are unsettling to watch and unsettling to think about.
Or, maybe it’s all too self-important. And we really are just watching a man in a sheet walk around to a depressing indie soundtrack and attempting to construct it as more profound than it is.
But, after all, one person’s Picasso is another’s misshapen cubic woman.