David Lowery’s A Ghost Story abides within the same pop-mythic realm as a Chris Martin lyric, a form of late-night philosophical juvenilia better suited to the characteristic glibness of Top 40 radio. What begins as an inverse pilgrimage of grief, eventually finds its way into more cosmic ruminations about time, memory and place. And it’s in those latter details that Lowery’s project butts up against the limitations of its conceit, a premise treated with such preciousness that the film quickly finds its slow cinema inclinations rendered catatonic. There’s only so much poetry that can be pulled from a bedsheet draped over a body, and A Ghost Story exhausts its supply quickly.
Part of the problem is that Lowery fails to establish a substantial emotional tenor early on, leaving the audience to do much of the heavy lifting. The film requires audience inclusion into M (Rooney Mara) and C’s (Casey Affleck) marriage, yet, structurally, most of the necessary relational information is backloaded at the film’s end, postured more as catharsis. That Lowery favors longer, static takes of trivial tableaux in the first third steals from empathy the film requires later on. Most of backstory is skimmed through or elided completely, unless there be an important morsel of narrative information upon which the integrity rest of the film relies. In the opening scene, M tells C that she left notes in childhood homes her family moved from, so that if she ever went back to any of them, there’d be a piece of her waiting. When C dies in a car accident outside their home and assumes his ghostly state (his hospital bedsheet, that is), he returns home to make contact with M. He occupies the house alongside her as she grieves — an expressionless, confounded mass of creased fabric with a pair of almond-shaped eyeholes. M eventually leaves the home but not without first leaving a note in a crack in the wall which she paints over. For that note the eponymous ghost endures.
The lack of emotional heft is amplified by hackneyed formal choices. A medium close-up is held for minutes above the betrothed’s bed, a broody blue shot of their entangled bodies as they speak in veiled conversation about past incidents. In keeping with its M.O., these whispers never reveal anything about their relationship. When C dies and M identifies his body at the hospital, the shot is static and wide, an antiseptic flat blue with the body and its lover framed by the doorway in the right third of the frame. Lowery’s version of slow cinema yields little because his compositions lack any complicating or enlightening visual information. His mise-en-scene is a calculation of sleek, hard angles and an equally fractioned depth of field that reduces the act of blocking and choreographing actors into mere obligation.
A Ghost Story is full of these silly, hollow images, and they find their thesis when Mara eats an entire pie in one take. After C’s death, their property manager delivers a pie to M (with an accompanying letter expressing condolences and requesting a time to schedule painters). In a gestured sadness, M sits on the kitchen floor and devours the pie straight from the pan. And Lowery gratuitously shoots the scene in a wide, single take, with Mara near center frame, dwarfed by negative space that quickly devolves from observational to grotesque. At the end of the scene, she runs to the bathroom and barfs her grief into the toilet.
Time overtakes grief as the main refrain when the film switches from an egalitarian mode to settle in on the ghost’s perspective. For C’s ghost, the passage of time conflates as M moves on from the loss. One scene highlights that compression as M leaves the house on three separate occasions without a cut, like a flitting specter in the translucent memory of the ghost. Eternity starts to emerge from that space, and once M leaves, what has been assumed is made certain: the ghost is a static figure, part and parcel with the memory of that specific place. Thus begins the ghost’s pilgrimage. His journey is predicated on recovering the note M hid before she left, which requires him to literally scratch paint from the wall with his fabric-covered ghost hand. It’s an arduous task, frustrated by eternity’s indifferent loop.
Lowery scripts the afterlife as a perpetuating tedium (which dovetails neatly with his formal choices). Time doesn’t progress for the ghost, but it does for this space — this house he’s tethered to — so he witnesses its history eternally. The ghostly state is itself a memory made manifest, so a dysphoria materializes when C’s past doesn’t cohere with the new memories being made in the present. As events unfold, A Ghost Story sets its eye to a cosmic plane. The ghost is a pilgrim of time and space. As long as he is static, scratching for the note, he will remain in this place — even when new residents move in and out or the home is destroyed and replaced. The ghost remains the same.
Herein lies the film’s biggest issue, when Lowery’s mythic scope takes precedent. C’s history is a history of the house, which is ultimately a history of that specific plot of land. Therefore, by nature, it’s a certain American history. What stories are chosen to occupy this space reveal almost nothing about the supernatural and everything about the memory of this land. For Lowery, cosmic-historic memory is the supernatural, and this is his translation of the myth. And it is woeful.
After M leaves, the first tenants are a single Hispanic mother and her two children. Their home is loving and full, a seemingly normal existence, yet this displaces the resident specter from the home’s memory. He is made to scratch at walls while bearing witness to the undoing of his own existence. An existential rage builds, which leads to him to haunt a family dinner. He throws dishes and overturns their table; their existence has no place alongside his. It’s an uncomfortable sequence, as this forlorn-bordering-on-affectless spirit is suddenly possessed by unprecedented anger. More uncomfortable than the confrontation is the egregious narrative choice Lowery makes to have the family speak primarily in Spanish yet deny them the dignity of subtitles. Maybe it heightens the foreign experience of the ghost? He is the Other forced to dwell among other others. Even if that’s the case, the scene couldn’t be more poorly miscalculated. I want to avoid attributing its staggering tastelessness to Lowery’s personal politics, but it feels like these Hispanic Americans are being driven away from more than just a home. It cuts deep in our day and age.
The histrionic exit of that scene leads to a lengthy diatribe given by a sweat-stained, overalled Prognosticator (Will Oldham), straight from the hipster fields of doom. He’s an Arbiter of Truth to a group of 20-somethings at a party so insulated that it seems the end of the world. He barks an insufferable tangent about the futility of life in the presence of the ghostly neighbor, obviously still agitated by new residents yet not filled with the rage that the happy family before invoked. The haunting that drives these folks out? Busting out the light bulb above the table, then an immediate cut with no reaction shots.
These lead further into myth, as the ghost presses into the future — a modern dystopia of concrete and capitalism. The sci-fi is low-fi as Lowery’s obvious fetishizing of the heavy-sunned Texas landscape is the only suitable place for true myth. The ghost finds a brief stay amongst the age of the American West, and Lowery’s affection for the past hits its highest pitch. There are pioneers and then there are savages. Keeping true to tone, the juxtaposition of the two, and their placement within this myth-making, are of a dangerous glibness that solidifies the plot’s historic pattern. It all seems so innocent and incidental, though it’s clear who the true Americans are. They pray earnestly to their God, thankful for the land and blessing. Yet the ghost observes ever on, a pioneer in his own right, navigating the cosmos-as-myth that is his story.
In being unremembered, the ghost is a slave to eternity, and Lowery uses this to shape lore. His affection for the Prognosticator, and for the pioneers, speaks volumes. The film’s racial politics become a problem because of the film’s insistence on making these issues a textual concern. A certain vision of this land and its history end up projected back onto the ghost, his bedsheet a screen for this mythical cinema. At one point, in flashback, M asks C what he loves about this house; his answer is its history. A Ghost Story’s history bends a strange arc. The beginning of the film, with its lack of emotional rhythm, forces the spectator to attach an internal psychology onto the ghost. By the time the film ends, Lowery has incidentally projected his own certain vision of place, time and fable onto him, usurping the relational core.
Ultimately, A Ghost Story fails because it’s too enamored with the gimmick of its be-sheeted ghost. He’s not a character, but an avatar. And because no rhythms are established early on, this ghost story becomes amorphous. It winds up assuming and amplifying the uglier parts of its story. There are moments where light penetrates the sheet exposing the body underneath. The sheet is a convenient shield, but remove it and the underlying story betrays its strange heart.
Colin Stacy (@bcolinstacy) is a writer, husband and father in Fort Worth, Texas. His writing has been featured at Reel Spirituality, Movie Mezzanine and 100 Films | 100 Scenes. He’s also the creator of the “Written and Directed by Elaine May” t-shirt.