The horror genre, to which ghost stories conventionally belong, is all about particulars. This is why the titles of so many horror films begin with the definite article. After all, a thing is not menacing until it becomes The Thing, and where an article-free Shining might sound like an uplifting comedy of the everyday, The Shining sounds like something – some very particular, peculiar thing – that is filled with all the foreboding of specificity. So you need know nothing more about David Lowery’s A Ghost Story than what it is called to have a good idea that it will not be like the other haunted house movies. For it is not making any bold claims to be the ghost story, but rather just one amongst many. Indeed, once its narrative is underway, it becomes clear that there is another, similar story unfolding next door, and maybe others too – all over the place and in parallel – as pasts persist and places accumulate histories that are perceptible, like branches falling in the woods, only if there is a pair of eyes to witness them. It helps, of course, that one of the key literary intertexts concealed within the structure of A Ghost Story also features an indefinite article in its title: Virginia Woolf’ short story A Haunted House (1921), whose opening line is cited at the film’s beginning, and whose pages are seen to flutter open within the narrative proper.
That titular promise of ordinariness appears initially to be borne out, as the (or at least a) viewer observes an anonymous couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, reunited from Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, 2013) in their ordinary rented home, hanging out on the sofa and chatting about how she, when a little girl who often moved house, would leave little secret notes for herself in hidden places. These childish missives were writings in the wind, shouts in the void, scribblings in the sand – destined to remain messages undelivered, unless someone were ever by chance to disinter and see them. The composition here is close, all contained within the single-storey (but as it turns out, multi-story) house, and held tight on the couple – and Lowery’s decision to shoot in Academy ratio contains the image even further, eschewing widescreen vistas for a smaller, more intimate scale.
The couple is woken in the night by the sound of something falling against the living room’s piano. As the man searches the empty room for whatever caused the noise, the woman stands watching, still wrapped in her bed sheet. Shortly afterwards, he will be killed in a car accident, and she will be covering his corpse in another sheet. In a nod, both funny and poignant for its simplicity, to a now old-fashioned form of ghostly iconography, that sheet will become the dead man’s costume for the rest of the film, concealing his body but for two small holes through which he can see. Although he can engage, when frustrated or angry, in limited poltergeist activities, for the most part he is reduced to his eyes – a bystander and quiet observer to all human activities in the space that he has chosen to haunt, and therefore a figure and reflex for all of us in the theatre, unable to intervene in the events projected before us.
Returned to the house shortly after his death, he watches as his partner sits on the kitchen floor and animalistically devours a pie that the landlady has left her before rushing to the toilet to void her system of a deep sorrow that is so hard to stomach. This depiction of grief’s all-consuming ravages unfolds in one very long take, with the unnoticed (by her) presence of the ghost modulating our own sense that we are intruding on a moment of extreme privacy. Its real-time duration, stretched to the limits of watchability, serves as a contrast to what follows, as the woman’s stay in the house, and then the sojourn of other tenants, and then the house’s eventual demolition and transformation into another kind of structure, are all witnessed as fleeting moments, or short scenes in montage, in the chronicle of a confined space (conveyed through continuity editing that skips and leaps fluidly through pinpoints of time). Here the ghost’s unusual focalising perspective unhinges the film’s single location from the normative frame of personal narrative. The ghost’s – and the film’s – search for significance may occur within narrow topographical limits, but nonetheless becomes extraordinarily broad in time and in theme, as it explores the place for human endeavour in an ever-expanding and decaying universe where in the end everything – even a phantom – moves on.
Lowery’s film haunts with its highly localised perspective on human history, as it goes/stays on a quest for a scrap of deferred meaning. With its melancholic vibe, its bittersweet take on love and loss, and its uncovering of unexpected layers in quotidian mortality, it sure is some ghost story.
© Anton Bitel