David Low­ery’s A Ghost Story

Luke Davies on David Low­ery’s A Ghost Story

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

“Is there some­thing there?” asks M (Rooney Mara), who is fol­low­ing her boyfriend, C (Casey Af­fleck), through their house af­ter a sud­den noise has wo­ken them in the mid­dle of the night. In A Ghost Story (in na­tional re­lease), di­rec­tor David Low­ery im­plies that there is al­ways some­thing, ev­ery­where. Spa­ces leave traces – of their own his­tory, at the very least – and time it­self is the most haunt­ing force of all. Low­ery, who last year made Pete’s Dragon, a $65 mil­lion ex­trav­a­ganza, shot this tiny, ele­giac mood poem in 26 days in a run-down, pegged-for-de­mo­li­tion house in Texas. He has cre­ated a ghost story that is not in any way a hor­ror story. It is at times as pre­pos­ter­ous as it is be­guil­ing.

M and C live to­gether. He ap­pears to be a com­poser; it’s not clear what she does, other than mope a lit­tle. But they’re in love. They’re com­fort­able with each other. Low­ery is com­fort­able let­ting us know this, via, for ex­am­ple, a sin­gle take of M and C in bed, do­ing noth­ing but nuz­zling, that goes on for a good long while.

There’s a fu­ture stretch­ing be­fore them, and a past that has clearly been in­hab­ited for some time. Then, one day, C dies in a car crash right out­side their home. (We see only the gen­tly smoul­der­ing af­ter­math.) When M gazes down on C’s body in the morgue, you sense she’s al­ready bury­ing her loss, and tight­en­ing the screws on her re­pres­sion. Mara has shown her­self to be adept at im­bu­ing “bot­tled up” with a shim­mer­ing, sim­mer­ing pathos and con­tained­ness, in films such as Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) and Bene­dict An­drews’ Una (2016).

But then, when M has left the room, C sits up abruptly, un­der the morgue shroud. This sim­ple cos­tume – a white sheet, with holes for eyes – is what Af­fleck will wear for the rest of the film. In pub­lic­ity ma­te­rial, the film­mak­ers stress that it is Af­fleck un­der the sheet, and that his gait and pos­ture are very uniquely his own, and help make the film what it is. It’s hard to imag­ine that’s re­ally the case, but good for Casey if it is – and bless these method ac­tors. The con­ceit we must ac­cept if we are to en­joy what fol­lows is that C’s pres­ence in time and place is real, even if his ghost shroud is a kind of metaphor. For all its ab­sur­dity, the trope works.

In in­ter­views, Low­ery has ac­knowl­edged that the whitesheeted ghost is “an in­her­ently goofy im­age”. “I love the clas­sic iconog­ra­phy of the bed-sheet ghost. You can show this sym­bol to any­one around the world and they know in­stantly what it rep­re­sents.” In the hos­pi­tal, in those first dis­ori­en­tated mo­ments of C’s after­life, a door opens be­fore him – or rather, a rec­tan­gle of pure white­ness opens up and ex­pands on the screen. C stands look­ing at it. He does not step into it. It closes. Did he just make a choice? To hang around for a while? Do ghosts have agency like that?

It’s this “hang­ing around” that is the the­matic lo­cus of Low­ery’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion: what is du­ra­tion, and what is pres­ence, and what does it mean to haunt and be haunted? Af­ter leav­ing the morgue, C paces steadily across open fields, the folds of his sheet drag­ging, some­how touch­ingly, in the mud. Fi­nally he ar­rives back home, where M is now alone. C ob­serves her in her still­ness and her grief. Hence­forth, she will be sep­a­rated for­ever from his own long pas­sage of mute­ness and be­wil­der­ment.

This is, you will not be sur­prised to learn, an ex­tremely quiet film; if you don’t want to dis­turb your fel­low cin­ema­go­ers, then per­haps forgo pop­corn at this one. M’s form of sor­row at the sud­den loss of her lover is a kind of per­fect blank­ness that looks, on the sur­face, al­most Zen-like. Low­ery’s un­der­stated, me­thod­i­cal pars­ing of this goes as fol­lows: First, in cer­tain cam­era an­gles, we’ll see M alone in the house, in her frozen grief. (In one scene she eats a pie that a friend left for her on the kitchen ta­ble, one la­bo­ri­ous mouth­ful af­ter the other un­til most of it is gone. It feels over­baked, ex­cuse the pun.) Then Low­ery changes the an­gle and the frame: now C is there, in the back or to the side, stand­ing some­what in­nocu­ously.

So it’s about C now: his on­to­log­i­cal sta­tus. He is pure ob­server. He does not in­ter­act. He does not seem to know yet that he can. Com­poser Daniel Hart’s mourn­ful cello and or­gan pro­pels all this along. As the film’s method­ol­ogy de­vel­ops, and as we re­alise we’re not wait­ing for scares, we start to feel we have a front-row seat to an at times in­ter­est­ing med­i­ta­tion about pres­ence and ab­sence.

One day, C sees a ghost in the win­dow of the neigh­bour­ing house. “Hello,” it says, wav­ing. (The “con­ver­sa­tion” takes place in sub­ti­tles.) “I’m wait­ing for some­one.” “Who?” asks C. “I don’t re­mem­ber,” says the neigh­bour.

It’s a glo­ri­ous scene, in­con­gru­ously comedic. And yet at the same time it’s a heart­break­ingly lonely mo­ment, dra­mat­i­cally alive for all its min­i­mal­ism. Philip Grön­ing’s doc­u­men­tary Into Great Si­lence (2005), about Carthu­sian monks in a monastery in the French Alps, is a film about med­i­ta­tion that it­self be­comes an ex­er­cise in med­i­ta­tion. A Ghost Story, a film about wait­ing, en­acts that wait­ing in its com­po­si­tional pa­tience and in the very DNA of its shot choices.

By the end of the first act, M will drive away to her new life. C stays be­hind. The im­pli­ca­tion seems to be that he has for­got­ten by now – or is start­ing the long process of for­get­ting – who or what he is, and what he is do­ing in the house. Per­haps ghosts are meant to ex­ist with­out a sense of ra­tio­nal pur­pose. (Also, as the house re­cedes in the back­ground, M at the steer­ing wheel, it’s hard to imag­ine C un­der the bed­sheet run­ning af­ter her up the drive­way and yelling, “Wait for me!” Or jump­ing breath­lessly into the back seat of her car.)

The years pass. New own­ers come and go. Chil­dren sense C’s pres­ence more than adults do – ex­cept when he’s feel­ing a lit­tle antsy and poltergeisty. “When I was lit­tle and we used to move all the time,” M had told him when he was still alive, “I’d write these notes, and I would fold them re­ally small, and I would hide them.” “What did they say?” asks C. “They were just, like, things I wanted to re­mem­ber,” says M, “so that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me wait­ing.” Later, when he’s a ghost, C watches her slip just such a mes­sage into a crack in the wall. Ev­ery now and then he reap­plies him­self to the task of ex­tract­ing it. But he’s a lit­tle like a dog now: eas­ily dis­tracted, as peo­ple, and events, and years, come and go, and he keeps be­ing in­ter­rupted at the task.

The singer Will Old­ham has a cameo, as a ver­bose party guest in what is now a share house. “We build our legacy piece by piece,” he philosophises, “and maybe the whole world will re­mem­ber you, or maybe just a cou­ple of peo­ple. You do what you can to make sure you’re still around af­ter you’re gone.” In a film that oth­er­wise con­tains about five pages of di­a­logue, the scene feels like a densely ver­bal anom­aly. The prob­lem is that Old­ham’s mono­logue comes across as a way for the di­rec­tor to cram in a bunch of his of­f­cut thoughts. It doesn’t re­ally fit in with A Ghost Story’s nar­ra­tive struc­ture or, worse, with its leisurely tex­ture and pac­ing, which echo the films of Ya­su­jirō Ozu. What’s more, Low­ery has al­ready shown us what Old­ham’s char­ac­ter tells us – half an hour ear­lier, when M folded her tiny note into the crack.

Like or leave the film’s po­ten­tial pre­pos­ter­ous­ness, there is nev­er­the­less a pleas­antly lan­guid reverie at play here – a re­minder of the pas­sage of time. Of death and sor­row. Ev­ery­where, peo­ple want to leave traces; A Ghost Story re­minds us how no trace re­ally lasts. Hats off in any case to any film that nudges us to pon­der even if only for a mo­ment the rap­tur­ous ter­rors of ge­o­log­i­cal, let alone cos­mo­log­i­cal, time. Rarely have text and sub­text been so fused: the film doesn’t just op­er­ate as me­mento mori – its cen­tral char­ac­ter is one, un­adorned and prim­i­tive. It’s not that C doesn’t have char­ac­ter depth. It’s that he isn’t re­ally a char­ac­ter at all. He’s the fad­ing out of a con­scious­ness. He’s the ouroboros, en­act­ing an in­fi­nite cir­cu­lar­ity. Your own death is not com­ing to you, he tells us. It is al­ways there. Wait­ing for you to ar­rive.

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