In this singular exploration of legacy, love, loss, and the enormity of existence, a recently deceased, white-sheeted ghost returns to his suburban home to try to reconnect with his bereft wife.
“A Ghost Story” is the telling of one man’s haunting after death to find peace with letting go. That is really the simplest summary of the film and yet the expression of the story is rich with the nuance of grief, the ache of love, meaningful connection, and the surrealism of time. An exquisitely bare work of art, “A Ghost Story” will provoke wonder and dismay, thoughtfulness and discomfort.
The film opens with audio of a quiet, close conversation, bits of laughter, fear, and vulnerability. Then you see the man, C (Casey Affleck) and his wife M (Rooney Mara), curled up on the couch together. The conversations of the entire film comes in bits and pieces, snapshots of a life, puzzle pieces of meaning. Some scenes are short, startlingly abbreviated, while others are excruciatingly long. But you will feel this film more than you will be fed the straight details. And you will feel the intimacy and connection between the man and his wife immediately.
They live in a very modest suburban home and it appears that they are sorting through things. Maybe moving? Maybe they inherited the home of a deceased relative? And of course, from the beginning, you are anticipating the answer about who the ghost is.
The audio of the film is utterly phenomenal. It is stripped of so much of the typically overt sounds of suspense and instead, you will feel the hum of a quiet intensity, the soft thud of a racing heart, the charge of electricity of a flickering light bulb.
They’re awoken in the middle of the night by the jarring sound of piano keys. She is frightened while he checks the house. They return to bed and she curls protectively up against him. It was this scene where I was completely drawn in…to the nuance of every exhale, the subtlety of every touch, the weight of every need.
But the progress of time is where your expectations will be most challenged. The sun rises in the next scene and you may assume that it is the next morning. Maybe it is. All seems well. It’s quiet and serene. A boy is running through the field next to the house and stops, seeing something. As the camera continues to pan the scene, you are just as confused by what you see: two cars very still but crashed into each other, no sounds coming from the entire scene except the sound of an engine still running and steam and smoke billowing from under a hood. And the birds. The birds are singing good morning.
The man’s head is lifeless and slumped against the steering wheel.
In that moment, all the questions change. Time stands still, fast forwards and circles around. The scenes flutter between memories of being together with the real time grief as the wife goes in to identify the body of her husband, curls up in her bed blanketed by her sorrow and consumes a whole pie, swallowing her tears whole until she wretches.
The two most discomforting scenes are:
- the body under the sheet in the morgue.
- the wife eating the pie in the kitchen.
They are painful because they are completely devoid of any other stimulation and much longer than your mind is prepared to absorb. Thirty seconds can be incredibly long to see nothing more than a body under a sheet until finally it shifts gently and rises and slowly finds his way back to their home, to his grieving widow. It’s not frightening, but it’s heavy. The suspense is built by nothing more than the mere act of waiting and drawing out your patience to the very limit.
The pie scene is so normal, her movements so painfully slowed by grief, and 30 seconds go by before she even decides to eat the pie. She eats a slice while standing at the butcher block table…and keeps going, inevitably surrendering to the floor, swallowing the pie whole, mouthful by mouthful, tears dripping from her that you barely glimpse in the afternoon gloom.
Almost absolutely nothing is happening in the scene at all and yet your mind will start firing questions to fill in the silence, grasping after and also gaping at your own suspension of disbelief.
Are they really going to have her eat the whole pie??
Is she actually eating that pie?
Tears…those are tears.
And all the while, the sheeted ghost stands silent, bearing the burden of her grief that he can do nothing to ease.
Your throat will tighten instinctively as your imagination completely absorbs the utter depths of their pain, so connected and so separated from one another.
Time loses meaning for the ghost. He cannot follow the woman he loves. He can only stay at the house and wait for her. But as he waits and waits and waits for her, she slowly, eventually moves on. He sees another sheeted ghost through the window of the neighboring house and they can send thoughts to each other. They are waiting, but you will not be certain that they know what they are waiting for.
The woman begins to date and the ghost can only express the feelings of his own loss and grief through surges of electricity and books falling off the shelves. She finally decides to sell and move away from the house. Still, he cannot follow. He can only stay. But on the day that she leaves, she writes a very short note, tears off the strip of paper and then folds it and tucks it into a crack in the door frame in the house.
Families come and go. The ghost stays. He haunts them with his need and his waiting. And he’s obsessed with trying to recover the note left by his wife.
Time goes and goes. The scene of heaviest dialogue comes at a scene where a large group of 20-30 somethings are gathered in the house. A guest of the party begins to arrogantly philosophize about the meaninglessness of children and purpose and life, the inevitableness of death, saying that legacy is only a legacy as long as someone can remember you, or wants to. You know that this is a profound revelation of the story as the ghost surges intense emotion and the next scene cuts abruptly to the house, neglected and abandoned, with the light bulb, which had crackled brightly at the man’s discourse, now shattered.
Still, time goes, with the ghost scratching painfully at the wood. He almost retrieves the note when suddenly, large excavators crash into the roof, demolishing the now condemned house and the note with it. And if you’re paying attention, you may begin to wonder if all these words that you feel about the house – haunted, abandoned, neglected, condemned, lost – are actually words meant for the ghost.
The house with the other ghost is also demolished and its ghost gives up in despair, disappearing in an instant as the sheet collapses to the ground empty, nothing more than just a sheet.
But still, our ghost is haunted. Haunted by the note. And haunted by the meaning of his life, perhaps even his death.
A high rise of office buildings is erected where his house of love once stood. Memories of his music, his wife, his legacy float through his mind and in a final drastic gesture, he plummets his non-being off of the precipice of the building. Can a ghost die? Can he escape his time?
With a marvelous twist, he does escape linear time and is looped back to the land before it was even settled by pioneers heading west. Silently observing, he eventually finds himself back in his own house while he was still alive with his wife. With perhaps a combination of relief and desire to be real in the real time, he plunks himself onto the piano, disturbing the sleep of the man and the wife. And then the ghost is haunting his own ghost, a mysterious tangle of time as he is both the observer and the observed.
Finally, finally, finally….he is able to pull the note out of the doorframe.
He opens the note and instantly the sheet floats spiritless to the floor.
What does the note say?
Perhaps you already know.
Perhaps you will never know.
Perhaps you can only feel what cannot ever be known.
“A Ghost Story” is not a traditional haunted horror film. And you will be awkwardly disappointed if you go to see the film with that expectation. But if you will stay and surrender your mind to the horrors of dreaded meaningless, trapped in a state of never-ending time, possibly forgotten by all that you loved, you will be rewarded with a soul-capturing masterpiece that will haunt you with its beauty to the core of your whole being-ness.
Now playing in select theaters