2017 Film Essays

Grief in Life and Death: A Comparison of ‘A Ghost Story’ and ‘Manchester by the Sea’

The great American writer David Foster Wallace wrote that “every love story is a ghost story,” and perhaps no phrase could be more appropriately connected to A Ghost Story and Manchester by the Sea. Both are ghost stories of sorts, one more explicitly than the other, yet both equally contend with the loss of loved ones and the grief which arises out of these losses.

A Ghost Story takes the more radical approach. A supernatural drama written and directed by David Lowery, the film’s basic narrative concerns the ghost of a deceased man, C (Casey Affleck), floating under a white sheet and unable to move on, returning to the house where his wife, M (Rooney Mara), lives. After the car accident which kills him, the film focuses on the grief process in the afterlife: this is a film about the suffering of the lost, not the one who has suffered the loss. Having C under the white sheet, as in the mode of the classic idea of ghosts, is a delicate and daring touch by Lowery. It allows the viewer to project their own fears and anxieties about death onto this floating spectre; physical identification is, suitably, lacking. C watches his wife in the early stages of her grieving, and the emptiness and numbness of this is painstakingly captured in a long take shot of M eating a whole pie left by a friend before throwing up.

Later, M returns home with a new man but seems reluctant, naturally, to invite him in. It’s at this point where C interrupts the land of the living for the first time: in a fit of expectant rage, his restless spirit causes the lights to flicker and books crash off the bookshelf. One of the hardest things to contemplate about death is the thought of our loved ones finding companionship with someone else, and C is no different. Soon after, M feels ready to vacate the house and move on with her life; her grieving process, it seems, has been mercifully short and not too difficult to overcome. C, meanwhile, remains in the house, full of uncertainty.

Another ghost residing in the house next door is shown in its grief, too. Through subtitles, viewers are told that this other ghost is “waiting for someone” but they don’t remember who. When the houses are being demolished, in a moment of poignancy, this other ghost finally accepts that whoever it’s waiting on isn’t coming and, in defeat, his sheet immediately deflates and the spirit is extinguished. After carrying its burden for a long period of time, there is no reward, no closure. Grief, to Lowery, can be beaten, in the example of M, but may just be something to bear in some form for everyone in the afterlife.

Kenneth Lonergan has no such thoughts for what awaits in death, as his melodramatic portrayal contends with grief in daily life. Manchester by the Sea is told in the present with flashback interjections showing the main character, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), in previous moments of his life. A sullen handyman for a building in Quincy, Massachusetts, he lives a solitary life in a basement apartment. When he’s not working, he’s drinking and fighting: it’s clear that all is not well with Lee. His meagre existence is soon disrupted when he’s informed that his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died and that full custody of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), has been granted to Lee. He doesn’t want custody and doesn’t want to have to return to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea. As Lee contends with this new responsibility, more is slowly revealed as to how he has found himself in his situation. Lonergan prefers it this way: it’s a more accurate encapsulation of the grief process, when one tries not to think about the past, until the sadness slowly seeps into their mind, in fragments.

When the reveal of just what happened arrives, it’s devastating. In another flashback, it’s shown that Lee accidentally caused the deaths of his three children in a fire during an intoxicated stupor. All his pain, the meaning behind his quarantined suffering, is immediately understood. It isn’t that Lee, for instance, doesn’t want to be guardian to Patrick; rather, due to his past, he fears that he isn’t capable of the task. Considering the magnitude of the tragedy, then, Lonergan questions if there can be grief too profoundly awful to overcome. We can ask ourselves how we would possibly cope under such circumstances. Lee’s confinement away from Manchester-by-the-Sea can now be seen as his shouldering of his loss and grief; he feels that he deserves this punishment.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this film could have descended into mawkish manipulation. After a defined period of mourning, Lee would have made it through his feelings of guilt and grief to rise to the challenge of caring for Patrick in a rousing act of recovery, but Lonergan doesn’t allow for this. While grief can indeed be a catalyst for change in some, more often it’s a wholly suffocating experience. Not every person’s story can come packaged in a redemptive Hollywood narrative. In a demoralizing scene, Lee tells Patrick that he “just can’t beat it,” and this is the harsh truth Lonergan means to show: sometimes our struggles are just too much to overcome and one must learn to bare them.

Both films show an inherently masculine view of grief. Consider the distinctly opposite decisions after the death of their children by Lee and his ex-wife Randi: he isolates himself and bares his pain alone, while she surrounds herself with emotional support, in their hometown. It’s a definite masculine form of martyrdom; a stoic acceptance of events and the idea that the man should have to deal with his feelings silently. Lee’s decision seems to be partly borne of his Christian, Massachusetts upbringing, a cultural marker of the men from this region. It’s partly why he feels the need to condemn himself to a solitary life, a punishment for his sins. The masculine element is less obvious in A Ghost Story, but it still lurks. C’s relationship in life with M is shown to be problematic, full of disagreements and arguments. In one key scene, he prefers to work on his music rather than fix an issue that M has made him aware of. A seemingly intelligent and thoughtful person, C lacks the emotional resolve to face his marital problems. After his death, too, when M appears to be moving on for the first time with a new man, a masculine entitlement pervades when C’s spirit disrupts the house; M is his girl. The casting of Affleck in both, also, enhances this: it connects the films as emblematic of male despair, with the actor as the avatar.

The films capture grief in its universality. Lowery cleverly plays on the haunted house scenario by presenting such an event as being the manifestation of the psychic pain of a restless ghost. When a young Hispanic family moves into the house after M leaves, C reacts badly, smashing plates and glasses, terrorizing the new occupants. They, however, experience this as a general haunting, by an unnamed and unseen being. In the case of the ghost in the house next door to C, no information about his background is given: viewers don’t know its gender or race or even who it’s waiting on. Suffering in death, then, is presented as being inescapable and universal. In spite of the circumstances — Lowery doesn’t even show the actual car accident which killed C — death is a collective experience; it acts as the great equalizer and grief will be shared by all. In this way, A Ghost Story transcends its basic plot of a young couple torn apart.

Lowery employs a metaphysical time loop in the latter part of the film, allowing for C to be transported back into the past, when the first settlers arrive at the plot of land which will eventually become his suburban home. This time loop continues into the final scene, in which C’s ghost watches his ghost watching his wife leave their house. He is, clearly, stuck and a reprieve is only granted when his ghost retrieves a note M left in the wall: upon reading what’s contained on the piece of paper, after much trying to get it, he is finally freed and immediately disappears. This is Lowery’s explanation of the events, the idea of a time loop, but it’s possible to read it another way. Given the blank canvas the white sheet provides, and given the idea of grief in the afterlife as being universal, it’s tempting to consider that other spirits reside under the white sheet throughout the latter part: that, back in the pioneer times, a restless spirit of a murdered Indian waits on the plains; that the ghost watching C’s ghost at the end is a previous inhabitant of the house equally unable to move on. Indeed, this would be backed up in the scene where a ghost sits frustratedly on the piano causing C and M to wake from their sleep and investigate the disturbance.

Manchester by the Sea does the opposite and maintains an interest in specifically only Lee’s story. In life, clearly, grief is more individual and detailed, when it’s at its rawest. This specificity is on show in the contained location of Lonergan’s film, its narrative taking place as it does in an idiosyncratic blue-collar, New England community. The camera captures the beautiful but icy landscapes of the seaside town; an isolated and claustrophobic place. For a person locked in his own tormented mind, returning to Manchester-by-the-Sea would be daunting. Too many memories, too many emotions. Lee’s hometown, essentially, stands as one large reminder of his grief.

The origins of Wallace’s phrase “every love story is a ghost story” seem to come not from him but from an Australian writer named Christina Stead, when she wrote it in a letter to a poet friend in 1975. Yet, Stead’s letter didn’t appear in print until 1992, and it’s incredibly unlikely that Wallace would ever have encountered it. Meaning, more grandly, that two distinct writers of different generations dreamed up the same exquisite phrase. An interesting coincidence, yes, but it’s also a great metaphor for the universality of grief and its effects. Although individual grief may be colored by guilt or loneliness, jealousy or the passage of time, ultimately everyone who knows love will know a ghost story, and suffer the same grief or become a ghost in the end.

Conor Lochrie is a freelancer currently travelling and working in New Zealand after earning a degree in Central and Eastern European Studies. 

2 replies »

  1. a good article, I have not seen any of these films but I am sure know to watch them as the article has intrigued me.