Filling a Void Left by Loss, Time and Existence: On David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’

It may be too premature to make such a statement, but A Ghost Story, edited, written and directed by David Lowery, is not only one of 2017’s finest achievements so far, but it’s also currently one of the best films of this decade. For those who don’t know anything about this under-screened gem, the film revolves around a man who dies in a car wreck and occupies his former home as a bed-sheet wearing ghost. While the concept seems more absurd than anything, it turns out to be a very surreal, personal and emotionally devastating work of art that plays more like a painting in motion than any film playing in your local theatre. While that’s primarily because Lowery says what he needs to through mostly visual means, it’s also because, much like any work of art, it’s deeper meanings will hit everyone in different ways. Some will be more affected by how it deals with the idea of loss, while others will be hit with how it deals with the concept of time, existential fears, coming to terms with fate and letting go, or the evolution of mankind. Whether one theme resonates with you or all of them do, it’s still an incredibly powerful experience regardless.

In order to properly present everything that A Ghost Story has to say, we have to start with one striking image: The image of C (Casey Affleck) in spirit form staring into a colourful, boxy void at the morgue before returning home. This image tells us everything about what this film is about before events really start to unfold, but we don’t know this until the end of the film. This image represents C staring into the void that will be his further existence. In this giant, vacant hole that spans all time and space, he is merely the smallest fragment and nothing more. The boxy look of the void also foreshadows how Lowery uses the film’s aspect ratio to represent the feeling of entrapment. This all foreshadows his quest for closure, leading to the realization that everything he wanted and desired from his life is meaningless. We could also see this void as a representation of the void we try to fill during our grief in loss, as depicted in the character of M (Rooney Mara). From this one image alone, whether we know it at this point or not, Lowery has set up the groundwork he needs to dissect all of these different themes.

The spirit of C (Casey Affleck) looking into the void. (A Ghost Story, A24)

Early on into A Ghost Story, Lowery dives right into the theme of loss, which carries on throughout the film in different forms. At first, loss is explored through M and her mourning the death of her husband, C. Initially, she is incredibly stoic in how she handles the situation, by never breaking down or bluntly expressing how she feels. However, through her very few lines of dialogue and mannerisms, we see her pain, primarily through shock. For example, at the morgue, she asks the coroner for a moment alone with C. Just as the coroner is about to leave, M asks her to wait before finally deciding to be alone for good, refusing to let anyone in. She then proceeds to stare at the body, barely moving. The scene itself is mostly a single, voyeuristic shot showing M viewing the body at a relatively far distance. We also don’t see her facial expressions as her backside is facing the camera, once again showing that refusal to let anyone in. From this, we aren’t certain how she feels at this very moment, but we can also conclude that M herself is just as emotionally uncertain.

The voyeuristic shot of M (Rooney Mara) at the morgue. Not in the film’s original aspect ratio. (A Ghost Story, A24)

Eventually, we see M open up more to us through the highly discussed, and at this point infamous, pie scene. From a surface level, one can just claim that the scene is merely an overly long scene of her devouring a pie in a single five minute take, but looking closer it’s one of the most unique depictions of desperately trying to fill the void gained by C’s death. The whole scene is, once again, shot in a single voyeuristic take that follows M finding the pie left by her neighbour, eating most of the pie, and eventually puking it out with absolutely no dialogue. At first she starts to take small nibbles of the pie in a standing position, which shows some form of dominance on her end as she tries to hold back her emotions. Eventually, she submits to her feelings by falling to the floor and devouring the pie as a means of grief. By the end of the scene, we see her drop the pie, run to the bathroom and throw up. Looking at this from an emotional standpoint, her falling to the ground shows her giving into her emotional weakness as she falls into a more vulnerable position while trying to fill the void left by her husband’s passing. By throwing up immediately afterwards, we see that both her body and her state of mind are refusing to allow that void to be filled. Sure, this scene could’ve easily been much shorter and more conventional in its execution by telling the audience how to feel, but it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact. Just like the scene in the morgue, we are going through this experience with her, and because of that, Lowery refuses to hold back no matter how long, strange and uncomfortable the scene might be.

M is not the only one to feel this way as we also witness the examination on loss from the perspective of C in his afterlife, however she seems to move on faster than he does. Throughout the film, the spirit of C is trapped in purgatory, lingering silently in the background in solely a bed-sheet ghost costume, which nobody else notices. From just that alone, we witness his pain as he comes to realize that his life and everything he had is gone. One of the most powerful moments depicting this comes from earlier on in the film as he goes to comfort M in her grief, but she can’t feel his presence even though he is holding her. Eventually, he also witnesses her moving on by seeing other men, moving out of their house, and, ultimately, losing his wife.

However, the most prominent symbol that states that M has accepted what happened and has moved on is a note that she leaves before moving. This then leads to him witnessing the loss of his home as we see other occupants living in the house for brief periods of time before it is completely demolished. What makes this even more tragic is that he can’t do anything to stop any of this from happening. Instead he’s forced to accept his fate just as M did, as well as the fate of his wife and his home that he cherished so much. His acceptance is also shown through the note that M leaves inside a crack of the door frame that she later paints over, with his main objective being to retrieve said note. By the end of the film, he does finally retrieve the note and, from there, accepting his fate, leads to his soul being freed from purgatory.

Lowery also shows C’s struggle for closure through the use of the constant 1.33:1 aspect ratio, as well as the use of windows as symbols of entrapment. Throughout the film, C’s spirit is often looking through windows in the house with grilles that are used to symbolize bars, and therefore a feeling of being imprisoned. This actually contrasts with M because throughout the film, she looks through mirrors without grilles on them. The aspect ratio also provides that feeling, but in a more claustrophobic sense. Through all of this, we feel just as trapped as C is, making the experience all the more heartbreaking.

An example of the use of the boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio and the use of windows to symbolize entrapment. (A Ghost Story, A24)

From the depiction of C’s loss, Lowery also delves into the concept of time, much like Charlie Kaufman did in Synecdoche, New York. Lowery shows how time slips away so quickly through the use of editing and meticulous stage direction. We see this more through editing as Lowery shows the passage of time through fluid and sudden transitions from moment to moment, to create the illusion of time slipping out of C’s, and therefore our, fingers. There is one scene in particular where we see this from a visual and auditory standpoint. In this scene, we see C’s spirit walking around the now vacant house. As he turns a corner, the overall lighting of the frame changes as we fluidly transition into night much later on with new owners occupying the house. We hear this as well because before the transition, noises are heard from the kitchen and C walking towards the noises is what causes the transition.

Lowery also achieves this through stage direction as we see characters and events appear in such a careful and conscientious way that it creates the same effect. There are two distinct moments in which we see this: The first is when C notices a couple of kids run into the now empty house just minutes after M has fully moved out, and the second is when a demolition crew appears out of the corner of the frame to destroy C’s house. All of these moments both in editing and direction not only create that passing time effect, but they also connect that to the feelings of loss that C is going through as a character. In all of these moments, C is determined to retrieve the note left by M earlier on in the film, but the constant passage of time is preventing C from getting the note because as time goes on, there’s always something stopping him, whether it’s new people owning the house or the demolition of it. We see him lash out about this when the first new owner is occupying the the house with her children. He gets so upset at their staying that he starts destroying their dishes and photos as means to scare them away. Through this effect, we get more depth in regards to the loss that C is facing.

From here, Lowery then starts to introduce more existential elements throughout the film. He introduces this slowly and with subtlety, but the effect is still there, especially in one brilliant but minor recurring character. After he dies, C communicates with another ghost of a different person at the house next door throughout a fair chunk of the film. This ghost claims to be waiting for someone, but they can’t remember who that someone is, and later vanishes into thin air when they come to the conclusion that this someone is not coming back. While this can be perceived as a personal connection C has to another ghost, there’s something more bleak at play here. This neighbour ghost is more of a means to introduce the meaninglessness of C’s spiritual existence. Both C and the neighbour ghost are helplessly watching everything they worked for and loved in this world either be destroyed or abandon them and are both forced to accept that fact after decades, if not centuries, of constant self-denial. On the surface, this may feel more simple to explain, but looking deeper, it does feel like more of a tool to help introduce the recurring motif of the meaninglessness of existence.

Another example of the aspect ratio, though mostly used to create a sense of claustrophobia in its entrapment. (A Ghost Story, A24)

After introducing those three ideas, Lowery then delves into the themes of legacy and evolution using existence, loss and time as grounding points. This is definitely one of the clearer aspects of the film, but it’s still worth getting into. Lowery really starts introducing these themes later on in the film when the second owner is occupying the house. In this scene, set during a party, Lowery’s thesis is stated to us in the form of a monologue from Prognosticator (Will Oldham) about finding legacy in existence throughout time and history. He talks about humanity and the desire to “build our legacy piece by piece and maybe the whole world will remember” what we did in our lifetimes. Using Beethoven’s “Symphony #9” as an example, he then goes on to dismiss this due to our evolution over time, saying that after “ninety percent of humanity will be gone,” there is a slight possibility that someone will be “humming a song that they remember from before,” everything will start all over again.

A small clip of Prognosticator’s lengthy monologue on existence, legacy and time. (A Ghost Story, A24)

We see this monologue come to life later on in the film as C falls off the skyscraper, built on the same land as his now destroyed home, and landing in the same place but in the 1800’s when settlers lived on the land. We also see this in the aspect ratio once again, as well as the ending. With the boxy, round-cornered 1.33:1 aspect ratio, it also creates an old home movie vibe, and at the end we see another ghost appear after we see C dying a second time. All of these visual elements not only imply that the entire film is taking place in some form of the past, as home movies are used as a symbol of past memories, but also, just like Prognosticator says in his monologue, everything is starting over again (as emphasized with C’s ghost waking up in the 1800’s and his second ghost).

An example of the 1.33:1 aspect ratio used to resemble a home movie. (A Ghost Story, A24)

Basically, in short, both visually and through this monologue, Lowery is saying that nothing really matters as time goes on when it comes to legacy or our existence. On this huge planet we all occupy alone, we as individuals mean nothing, but by bringing time into the equation, we mean even less than that. This is something that C is also experiencing in his loss; that whatever legacy he wanted to leave behind for himself, it’s never going to last or truly matter in the grand scheme of things. His wife has moved on and his house is destroyed, meaning he has nothing left to symbolize the footprint he left in this life, which is the one thing that he has no choice but to let go of. The themes of legacy, existence and evolution are key to helping tie everything together, and therefore, helping to end C’s odyssey of finding acceptance.

David Lowery’s A Ghost Story has a lot to say, and there’s probably a lot more that can be said about it. It’s an incredibly overwhelming piece of art and filmmaking, so much so in fact that one of the songs featured in the film is about being so overwhelmed by the mundane aspects of life. It’s a surreal and haunting experience that oozes with personal meaning, much like expressionist paintings of the past such as Edvard Munch’s The Scream, while incorporating post-modern themes and ideas to act as a counterbalance. While these themes are depressing, they’re also thought provoking and presented in such brilliant and meticulous ways. While it’s grounded in loss, the film covers more than just that. Ranging from existentialism to the concept of time, and while some themes may be more effective than others for each viewer, it’s impossible to discredit any of what the film has to say. It’s an experience unlike any other from this year or this decade, and hopefully it will be remembered for longer than it seems to think it will.

(Featured Image: A Ghost Story, A24)

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