A Ghost Story

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Please note: this article contains spoilers.

Director David Lowery Cast Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Sonia Acevedo, USA 2017, 1h27m, 12A: infrequent strong language, images of dead bodies

David Lowery wrote the first draft for his fifth film in a single day in the spring of 2016, as he was preparing for the release of his big budget Disney adaptation Pete’s Dragon. He then began to shoot the film in secret – not as a marketing gimmick, but due to fear that his latest project was going to make him a laughing stock. The film was to be a meditation on grief and a rumination on the enormity of time; fairly lofty and admirable themes to aspire for in the world of independent cinema. However, his goal was to achieve this through setting his film in one location and feature the most child-like image of the afterlife he could conjure – the ghost as a man with a white sheet draped over him.

The basis of the story, that of a couple disagreeing about moving from their home, comes from Lowery’s own life experience. As he embarked on work for Pete’s Dragon, the director was faced with the task of moving from Dallas to LA. His wife (actress Augustine Frizzell) did not want to relocate and the pair found themselves embroiled in an intense argument, which was only diffused when at one point Lowery said ‘God, doesn’t this feel like a scene in a film?’. This serves as the central argument for C and M, the young couple that Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara embody in the film. Although we only see moments of the argument at the start of the film, as the narrative begins to revisit itself and time becomes cyclical, we find that like Lowery and his wife, the couple have decidedly differing attachments to the building that they call home. The actual house used in the film also has real world connections to the filmmaker, as it is located just down the road from Lowery’s childhood home, with its history and imagined future looming large in his psyche.

The film’s abstract approach to time is established from the very beginning, as we are dropped in the middle of C and M’s relationship before quickly being shown C’s demise. From there, we see as C silently observes M’s sorrow before being left detained in the house and hurtled through time. This approach is ‘meant to approximate the ways in which we process time as human beings, which changes… when you’re a child waiting for Christmas or school to get out, it takes forever. A day feels like a year. Then you move into adulthood, and the years start to stack up far too quickly’. The film applies this to the grieving process, and the afterlife, through its very structure – with shot length at times resembling ‘slow cinema’ (Lowery has cited an admiration for Palme d’Or winning director Apichatpong Weerasethakul) but also at times moving quietly through time with a startling pace. In interviews, Lowery has used the term ‘temporal dialects’ to describe this – quickening and slowing the rhythmic pace of the action to communicate a deeper meaning to the narrative.  

The film opens with the epigraph ‘Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting’, a quote from A Haunted House; the 1921 short story by modernist author Virginia Woolf. Woolf follows this line with ‘from room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure – a ghostly couple’ and in the succinct tale that follows she has her narrator find how these ghosts came to haunt the house, and what their purpose is; manipulating time and collapsing whole lifetimes into several paragraphs. As with A Ghost Story, the story of A Haunted House also deals with loss, love and the tragedy of time through a supernatural story, and Lowery has stated that ‘Virginia Woolf’s literature really transformed my own ideas about how to formally represent the passage of time and how time affects us’. [4] With A Ghost Story, Lowery has taken the themes of Woolf’s short story and instead of adapting them directly, he has created a work that is distinctly cinematic and of its time.

Grief and longing are central themes to the film, and the film approaches these in ways that are both universal and unique. Whilst we see M’s anguish and her attempts to continue with her life, we are shown these from the perspective of the departed, with lingering shots of the cut out black holes that are C’s eyes speaking of a desire to be with M once more. One of the most talked about scenes of the film has M eat an entire home-baked pie whilst her grief consumes her, and C watches in the background. Recognising that neither himself nor Rooney Mara had the life experience of losing a loved one, Lowery used Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking as a method of understanding what it would feel like. Didion’s award-winning 2005 account follows the author as she attempts to overcome the death of her husband, and explains how her grief could manifest itself in the most mundane of activities – such as eating. [5]

It would be easy to dismiss the film as simplistic, as Lowery shows more than would be expected for such a poetic film – from C turning away from the light at the end of the tunnel in order to remain in purgatory, to the subtitles that show two ghosts’ conversation and even the premise of having a ghost represented by a man in a sheet. However by presenting these very modest explanations for how to represent the afterlife in cinema, the film allows the audience to ruminate on larger and more troubling questions. The film knowingly lies outside of easy categorisation – although dealing with the supernatural, it is most definitely not a horror film. It terrifies, but through the inclusion of existential dread and by touching upon very real emotions that are true to all.

Sean Greenhorn
Programme Manager, GFT 

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[1] Lowery, David, quoted by Danny Leigh in ‘David Lowery on his offbeat Ghost Story, starring Casey Affleck’, Financial Times


[2] Lowery, quoted by Tina Hassannia in ‘The existential dread of David Lowery and A Ghost Story’, National Post <http://nationalpost.com/entertainment/movies/the-existential-dread-of-david-lowery-and-a-ghost-story/wcm/6f9307cb-c8ad-4084-97a3-889406b6db49>

[3] Woolf, Virginia. “A Haunted House.” A Haunted House, and Other Short Stories, Creative Commons Licence, 2009

[4] Lowery, quoted by Matthew Jacobs in ‘Movies and Books That Inspired ‘A Ghost Story’, Huffington Post <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/a-ghost-story-david-lowery-influences_us_595fcecce4b0615b9e914551>

[5] Lowery, quoted by Cath Clarke in ‘David Lowery on why he made A Ghost Story: I was freaking out, having an existential crisis’, The Guardian Culture <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/aug/09/a-ghost-story-interview-david-lowery-casey-affleck-rooney-mara-pie>

   Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. Knopf Publishing Group, 2005

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