Horror cinema as of late has been going through a bit of a diverse phase right now. Mainly thanks to companies like A24 who put out challenging films that defy what tends to be put out into theaters. Stuff like It Comes At Night, The Lobster and Tusk. Who take the horror conceits and give us something… distinct, if not always good. A Ghost Story is one such oddity. A film about loneliness, the nature of supernatural immortality and someone eating a pie for five straight minutes in an unbroken shot. It’s not like much of anything one could be seeing in a theater. That’s commendable, but not always consistently popular. Yet… I couldn’t help but fall in love with this weird little time piece.
Director/writer David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) has been a fan of genre explorations. His films take basic tenants of their genres and turn them into gripping emotional tethers to get us past the initial appearance. Saints was a wistful yet authentic twist on a crime romance and Peter’s Dragon took an awful Disney film and turned it into a soulful journey of one boy growing up after intense tragedy. Now with A Ghost Story, Lowery takes the concepts of a horror film and gives the entire thing an existential point of dread. One where we see just how ultimately insignificant we are as people in the grand scheme of things. And how that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
A Ghost Story handles a type of existential horror and dread that few others would go through. It’s a wonderful example of exploring the genre from the perspective of the ghost. But not on a mere spooky haunt level. We see a bit of that in a sequence that shows Lowery loves horror, but it’s framed in a cruel dramatic tragedy. That our ghost (Casey Affleck) says so much with so little dialogue or direct body language. After seeing him as a live man alongside his wife (Rooney Mara), we don’t need him to express human concerns. There’s a subtle but wonderful build up to all this that shows Lowery loves the horror genre. But, taken from a different perspective.
In a scene where two young kids and their mother are frightened by a ghost, we sympathize with the ghost as much as the humans. There’s this ongoing endless waiting for the ghost that shows us the enormity of time. The vast endless nature of time and how it swallows up many a human in its wake. A Ghost Story isn’t about the horror of dying as a means of leaving our loved ones. It’s about the horror of being immortal and seeing our loved ones go through horror we can’t help them through. Being absent in real life only to not be able to be distracted by something else. To just witness for hours on end what they’re going through from the distance. All the grief, regret and – most terrifying of all – acceptance & moving on from us they go through.
It’s a chilling idea, which is presented in long uncomfortable shots by A Ghost Story. There’s an extended sequence where Rooney Mara eats a pie. It’s about five minutes long, in about one interrupted shot. The type of sequences that’ll drive people mad with impatience as they have to sit there and watch this elongated & unsettling scene of a woman stress eating to the point of tears. It’s uncompromised and brutal in a way that might deter people. But it’s a brilliant way of putting us into the mood of realizing what this is. How time plays a crucial part in the understanding of the world this film builds. One where we are doomed to hover over what we love most as it goes through the best and worst of times.
Through scenes like this, we see how our titular spectre goes through generations of advancements. How the house he loved in life goes through varying phases. Ones that leave him a cold spectator as life goes on and withers without his presence ever being known. A Ghost Story directly tackles topics of human legacy and futility in a way that may just be a bummer. And in truth it sort of is. Confronting the feelings of meaninglessness and sadness are the cornerstones of this story and they don’t leave you on the highest note to think about. Especially when so much of the film is dialogue free, allowing the visuals to really sink into your brain.
David Lowery plays with the concept of time visually in simple yet touching fashion. A Ghost Story is shot with 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with the corners rounded. The entire film feels like a faded photograph, one that’s been in a photo book for ages. It’s a feeling that gives further credence to the themes of loss and lingering dread of this afterlife. We get a few hints that this isn’t the only time this has happened. We see another ghost next door, waiting in vain for someone who never shows up. We see the history of this land both current and past in ways that blow our perceptions of linear storytelling out the window. It’s a cute image, given they’re two Charlie Brown style sheet covered ghosts. Still, those vacant eyes say so much about living and the human condition and being obsessed over the smaller details. The tunes hummed that last enough to keep us going. The books we read to lighten our imaginations. Our ghost slams those things into our senses through his limited yet impactful powers can get to people, if only briefly.
A Ghost Story isn’t really a movie about how life is pointless. If anything, it’s saying that the idea of The Afterlife is pointless. Even if we do gravitate towards another plane of existence, what does that mean for us? What do we gain from existing in another plane and seeing life go on? Not much. It’s a film about showing us the most simple form of another world within our own and realizing how empty that is. How elongated and cruel a concept like that can be. It encourages us to be like Rooney Mara and not hold history or the future in higher stock than we do the present. What our actions do now and how vital they are to how we will eventually look back on them. A Ghost Story is the type of cinema we need more of. The type that genuinely pause to contemplate humanity in ways few other bigger films right now even come an inch towards. Mind bending, soul destroying and kind of beautiful all at the same time.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Spooky Sheets
- Decades of Horror 1990s: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
- Preacher S02E05: Dallas
- Preacher S02E06: Sokosha
- Horror News Radio Ep 225: Killing Ground – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets