So many of the immediately recognizable images in society are organic. Sun = warmth, Life = Vegetation, Happiness = a smile or embrace. It’s natural that this would be the case. Our establishment of language, advancements in science and technology, and general evolution towards modern comfort, while unique amongst the Earth’s creatures, is nevertheless, in all iterations, an extension of what we are at our core. Just as emojis, to use a recent example, are undeniably a 21st century construct, their pictorial simplicity is downright prehistoric – complex emotions delivered in a simple image. All of this is prelude to say that despite humanity’s long history of communication via image, a concept that remains representatively illusory is the one of death. This is likely because, at the heart of it, what death means to us is absence. If one were drawing an image, it would need to be divided into “before” and “after”, the emptiness of the latter registering a presence no longer there. Because visual mediums don’t typically adopt this comics-panel technique, something else, something manufactured by us, must be called upon to convey death, to highlight the emptiness. Gravestones and tombs do this, certainly, but this registers more as a narrative statement – this person has died. How do we convey that eternally unsettling notion of a spirit left behind, a cosmic remnant of the person which was previously flesh and blood, a ghost?
Look no further than the most minimalist Halloween costume in history – a white bedsheet with two eye holes cut out. This is exactly (in concept, if not execution) what director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) uses in his latest movie, A Ghost Story, an elegantly simple exploration of the grief and confusion surrounding loss. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, the star-crossed lovers of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, reunite here to play a warmly intimate, if not rapturously in love, couple living in a somewhat dilapidated fixer-upper in small town USA. Starting with a widescreen shot of the stars, the aspect ratio slides in to a home-movie rounded square, lending the proceedings an air at once nostalgic and voyeuristic; these are all of our lives and memories, while obviously someone else’s. It’s within this cozy Instagram framework that various long scenes of domestic life – the autopilot back and forth of bedroom intimacy, frustrations over delayed decision making – unfold. For long portions of the movie, present and flashback scenes of home play like streamlined Terrence Malick – though with hushed voiceover replaced by palpable silence. What differentiates the movie from being imitation Malick, though, is the specter of its title. No later than we’re introduced to Affleck’s bearded musician do we find him hunched over the steering wheel of a truck outside their shack, the home he somewhat inexplicably decided they were committed to and from which Mara yearns to flee. This shot, one of many, is disarmingly beautiful. Soundtracked by a chorus of insects those of us who grew up near woods and grass will identify with immediately, the camera tracks across a billowing, of what it’s not obvious at first, until we pan far enough to realize that it’s smoke and nothing is on fire. The Thin Red Line lives in a scene like this, the incongruity of buzzing, hissing life on the perimeter of humans dying amongst their machines.
Once the story dispatches with Affleck in the present and acquires its titular wraith does the exercise begin in full, and it’s a doozy. Rising off a hospital table post-identification, the apparition wanders corridors, seemingly discovering existence at the same rate as the audience. In death as in life, home becomes this spirit’s beacon. Without spoiling too much, suffice to say our ghost makes his (its?) way back to the ranch, adopting a hypnotically slow and graceful pace across dirt and fields, until it arrives in a home twice as empty as the day before. Lowery uses the remainder of the movie to stage sequences we all identify with though probably don’t spend much of our day entertaining. The way people and furniture transform a space into something humming with life, or how grief in a dark, cold kitchen can coexist with children’s ecstatic playtime wails. The sheet remains silent and unnoticed – expect when it chooses to be – ever watchful against the relentless onslaught of time. It is there in viewing repeated daily tasks, which hint at the boredom that must accompany such observance. It is there in time jumps, when that litany of chores and habits has receded into a block of time no longer representative of where the sheet now lives. The whole enterprise is even hijacked for a stretch – containing maybe the majority of the spoken dialogue – on a meditation about legacies and the ultimately futile hope for survival of ourselves beyond death. A pessimistic outlook for sure, but if that leaves a bade taste in the viewer’s mouth, it doesn’t linger for too long, as our sheet pairs moving beyond temporal confines – something the film accomplishes through hypnotic, inventive editing – with physical ones, forced to explore beyond what it might be remaining for when that thing no longer exists.
Minimal dialogue and a mute bedsheet could make for some tiresome watching, and indeed there are stretches, one including a dessert, that seem to drag on. Part of this is functional, for sure, to give us a sense of what our ghost might endure watching humans live out their overwhelmingly mundane lives. But filmmaking exercises can be tedious, and Lowery must appreciate this because, in some of the most crucial moments, he lets his longtime composer, Daniel Hart, handle the emotional heavy lifting. Hart has done the score for all of Lowery’s pictures, and while I’ve only seen Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, that score, a rustic, violin based ache of a score, made such an impression that I’ve inundated Spotify playlists with his music ever since. And here he’s done one better – providing not only a key pop track to an emotional flashback, but his now reliable pathos to the instrumental segments which anchor flights from the home.
I don’t believe in ghosts. I concede there are plenty of anomalies in life that are curious – déjà vu, phantom sounds and movements in a house, getting a text from the person you were JUST thinking about texting… Nevertheless, the idea of something corporeal (soul, spirit, essence) lingering in our realm after its vessel has failed just doesn’t seem possible, even in a time when the multiverse checks out, mathematically. Which is to say, I don’t believe in ghosts on a practical level. I also don’t want to believe in ghosts on an emotional level, especially if they’re in any way like the sheet in this movie. Who wants their life stalked by a holdover from a better time? Imagine the embarrassment, guilt and shame that would come with being assessed every moment of our days? Am I doing enough? How wasteful of time would I come across as to something to which time no longer applies? By the very end of the movie, the ghost’s sheet has been through the ringer – torn, colored, faded – and we have too, a little bit, at least emotionally. Humanity’s built-in narrative is always about wondering what’s on the other side – a sort of spectral, “grass is greener” corollary, suggesting our little moments or delusions or schemes aren’t the things that are worthwhile, there’s always that bigger, ineffable “what” out there. For everyone who’s thought “why should I write that book, no one will read it?” or “why sing that song in the shower, no one will hear it?”, this movie suggests, gorgeously and (forgive me) hauntingly: don’t be so sure.
*Here is the beautiful final song of the movie. It’s a spoiler, obviously, albeit a sonic one.*