Hidden Gems: A Ghost Story
By Kyle Lee
July 18, 2018

It's a ghost. There's your story.

Writer/director David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is a particularly odd and beautiful movie. And while it does have a ghost as essentially its main character, it is not a horror movie. It is a meditation on life, love, what we leave behind when we pass on, and finding meaning in those things. Is there meaning in that? During our lives we can’t really know the answers to those things, but through the magic of storytelling we get to explore those existential questions that we all wonder about. A Ghost Story does this as beautifully as I’ve ever seen a movie do it.

The story, as far as plot goes, concerns C (Casey Affleck) a musician who lives in a small house in Dallas, TX with his wife M (Rooney Mara). She wants to move, he doesn’t. One night they hear a banging noise on their piano, but when they investigate it, they find nothing. The next day, C is killed in a car accident right outside their home. After M identifies the body at the hospital, a white sheet is placed over his body and she walks away. A few moments later, his body sits up, with the sheet staying on him. He stands, the sheet stays, and we even see that there have become two eyeholes like a child’s Halloween costume. C’s ghost slowly begins wandering around the hospital, seemingly invisible to everyone and everything around him. He encounters a glowing bright light that beckons him to enter it, which he doesn’t do.

The ghost returns to his home and proceeds to watch his wife mourn. In what passes for him like just a few moments, we see him watch her over days, weeks, and months. He can’t communicate with her, and she cannot see him, or give any indication that she can feel his presence. C’s ghost eventually goes to the window and sees another ghost in the house next door. They are able to communicate with one another. The other ghost tells C that she’s waiting on someone to come home, but she can’t remember who. M writes a note, and sticks it in crack in a wall, and then moves out of the house, C’s ghost then watches as another family moves in. The children can feel his presence and are disturbed by it. C lashes out in anger at the family, hurling dishes out of the cabinets. The next occupants of the house throw a big party where a man (Will Oldham) goes on a philosophical rant about how people try to create a legacy, but the universe doesn’t care and it’s ultimately futile to think otherwise.

To keep recounting the plot is not only futile itself, it’s not indicative of the experience of watching the movie. This isn’t a movie where the plot matters, really. This movie exists based on its atmosphere and ideas. C’s ghost experiences time in a much different way than we do. Years are moments to the ghost, and may not even be experienced linearly. We begin to pity the ghost that can’t remember who she was waiting for. We wonder if C remembers M. I think he does. I think one of the things Lowery is saying in the movie is in opposition to the ranting man at the party. What we do in our lives and relationships may not matter to the universe, but it matters to us and it matters to the people we touched.

The visuals of the movie are really striking. The image of the ghost, which might seem at first glance to be childlike or even comical, is initially haunting and eerie. It gave me goosebumps. Eventually, as we watch, it becomes melancholy and wistful. The ghost seems sad. Although he can’t emote anything, we can feel it. We sense it in the atmosphere of the movie. We get it through the small amounts of body language that Affleck is able to portray through the costume. This ghost has a lot of feelings, but I’m not sure it always understands them. I also began to wonder if the ghost remembered that it used to be human, or even what that meant to him in the stage of existence he is in now.

Though only made on a budget of $100,000, it doesn’t show. The movie is beautifully shot, edited, and acted. The simplicity of the ghost costume becomes an asset, not a hindrance. It makes for some really striking images, this ghostly being in the middle of a skyscraper, on a construction site, or even just watching his wife mourn. There’s a scene, much maligned by the movie’s detractors, of M eating a pie while C’s ghost looks on. If you’ve ever experienced real grief, you’ll recognize the numbness in Mara’s extraordinary performance as truly an embodiment of loss.

Lowery is also benefitting from the low budget by being able to work with some big ideas here. Life, love, loss, all the weightiness of the questions of our existence. It makes the movie work on an almost primal level for me. That’s not something you usually get in bigger budgeted movies. Lowery has said he conceived of this while in post-production on his previous movie, the 2016 remake of the Disney classic Pete’s Dragon. He enlisted Affleck and Mara, the stars of his first movie Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, who worked for nothing to be able to make this movie happen.

I haven’t seen either of Lowery’s previous movies, but after watching this one, I look forward to catching up. He’s a talent I will certainly be keeping up with from now on. We don’t get a lot of meditative movies who want to explore the nature of memory, love, and even time. We should embrace these when we find them. I love to talk about films like this, slow moving films that have something to say and yet don’t dictate that to the audience. It’s a movie with a lot to say that could even end up meaning different things to each of us in the audience. This is another wonderful Hidden Gem.