C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are a couple who live together in a small house in what appears to be a small suburb. M desires moving house. C is absolutely opposed. Within ten minutes, C dies in a car crash metres from his front door. M identifies his body in the morgue then leaves. Everything is still, but the camera lingers. The sheet rises. C remains under the sheet for the rest of the film, unable to speak. He returns home, and watches M grieve. Where the film goes after that should be left for discovery, and what a bloody discovery it is – A Ghost Story is totally magnificent.
David Lowery’s film centres on this question: how strange would it be if you were removed from time, but still able to watch the effects of its passing? Not only is this conceit mesmerising, the images are too. The sight of the ghost traversing an open field, the sheet trailing behind him like a bridal train, is absolutely indelible. The screen is inundated with mist, the colours are pale and awash with soft refractive light, making everything seem unreal. The 1.33:1 aspect ratio boxes the characters into the frame, which at first put me in mind of Polaroid photography (fitting for a film that plays so much with time and memory). But it’s the corners of the frame, which are slightly curved, that confirm its purpose. Every viewer is a ghost too, and those curved corners are the edges of our crudely cut eye-holes. We do as the ghost does; we simply watch.
This viewer-as-ghost idea becomes important if we think about the film’s use of long takes. (The cutting is also marvellous, and a few scenes in which several consecutive quick cuts mark the passage of time are devastating.) Single takes can last minutes in this film, and they require a viewer to be patient, much like they do in the films of Tarkovsky. In what’s been referred to as the ‘pie scene’, Rooney Mara’s M devours an entire chocolate tart in two static shots, totalling around six minutes of screen time. The second of the two shots, in which Mara sits on the floor with the camera level, is especially unbearable: the ghost is in the top right corner, out of focus, but as motionless as the camera. As the minutes pass, every detail of this becomes excruciating: M’s face tightens with pain and grief; the sound of the fork hitting the bottom of the tin; the ghost’s stillness; the viewer’s mimicking of that stillness; the awful lack of reciprocity. The sadness accumulates until the next scene, in which the ghost tries to comfort the grieving M; the result was, for me, a complete emotional wipeout.
There is still so much to be said about A Ghost Story: about Daniel Hart’s wonderful and pensive score, the meditative pace, the splendid use of Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Haunted House’, and the early long take of the couple in bed. Gentle reader, I cannot overemphasise: seek out A Ghost Story, it is superlative.
Image: Bret Curry