by Ryan Smillie
My parents have a ghost in their house. Sue, the ghost, is more Casper than Beetlejuice - books fall down and picture frames get rearranged, but no one has ever been possessed at a dinner party (at least, not yet). Years after my parents started to notice these occurrences, a psychic clued them in to the whole story. Sue was a girl who lived nearby and died as a teenager. She still wanted to be part of a family, somehow settled on ours and has been in my parents’ house ever since.
David Lowery’s A Ghost Story follows a ghost like Sue. Casey Affleck’s bedsheet-clad C returns to the home he shared with M (Rooney Mara) before his untimely death, sometimes haunting its inhabitants, but mostly lurking in the background, watching their lives unfold. Despite its spectral title, this is no supernatural horror movie. Instead, with the classic last-minute, low-effort Halloween costume taking the place of the usual CGI monstrosity, Lowery uses this ghost story to explore grief, memory and legacy.
Tight, intimate shots of C and M’s life together almost immediately give way to a slow, distant pan to C’s lifeless body in a wrecked car. M then identifies C at the hospital and exits, leaving us focused on C’s sheet-covered body - an extended static shot until, beneath his sheet, C suddenly sits up. C returns to his now-former home and mostly lurks in the corners and edges of the frame as time passes and M comes to terms with her loss, being consoled by friends, eating an entire pie (Mara's first!), and eventually, kissing another man.
It's this last development that inspires C to go from incorporeal observer to malevolent spirit, flickering lights and throwing books, finally acting like the standard conception of a movie ghost. After this display, M decides to move out, but not before pushing a note into a wall in the house, a childhood habit she had described to C earlier in the film.
As C desperately tries to pry the note from the wall, time flies around him and a new family moves into the house. Visibly unsettled by C's unseen presence, the family attempts to settle in, but when C ratchets up his haunting, smashing plates in the kitchen, the family packs up and leaves, and C resumes his attempts to retrieve the hidden note. Time passes slowly, quickly, and even circularly, as C continues his efforts through a house party, a futuristic office building, a trip back to the pioneers who first built the house, and eventually even looping back to C and M moving in.
C watches his married life, eventually catching up to the start of the movie, and in the process, revealing some light haunting that had startled C and M earlier in the film to be his doing. The events play out as they did before – C dies and eventually M moves out. This time, however, C is able to pull M’s note out of the wall, he reads it, and then he disappears from under his sheet, ending this ghost story.
With his constant presence in the frame and sporadic eerie outbursts, C functions as a sort of avatar of memory and grief, lingering in the background until suddenly asserting his presence. Though the titular ghost, C is far from the only ghostly presence in the movie. From across the window, C meets another ghost, also in a bedsheet. Instead of looking for a note, this ghost is waiting for somebody, though she is not sure who it is. When she realizes that this person isn’t coming, she disappears from under her sheet – perhaps representing the final gasps of a memory?
Even before we see a single ghost, Mara’s M walks through the house wrapped in a bedsheet while the living C investigates strange noises they don’t know are coming from C’s ghost. This shot of M standing quietly, waiting while her husband figures out what is going on is echoed in the many shots of C lurking in the side of the frame (square and vignetted, to suggest an old photo) while anything else is going on. The repeated use of images like these suggest something that traverses the divide between life and death – the memories created by these people and that live on in their homes and their minds.
Though the film avoids much in the way of a pat resolution, the central idea of the film is summed up by a sententious but all-too-familiar party guest midway through the movie – “We build our legacy piece by piece and maybe the whole world will remember you or maybe just a couple of people, but you do what you can to make sure you're still around after you're gone.” My family has varied opinions about how likely it is that Sue the ghost is actually real. Maybe she is just like C, trying to make sure she is not forgotten, or maybe it’s all in our heads. Either way, she (or whatever “she” is) has become a detail in one of many family memories, and these memories are our ghosts, bedsheet or no bedsheet. And who knows – maybe one day they’ll find another family to haunt.