It’s all about time,” reads the moody grayscale poster for David Lowery’s supernatural drama A Ghost Story. Nothing on the poster seems entirely black or white, except for the abyssal eyeholes in the bedsheet that represents the ghost. The film follows two young lovers, C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), just long enough for us to care about them before C dies in a car wreck. Suddenly draped under a white sheet, its eyeholes empty and brooding, C walks away from whatever ethereal realm awaits him and, unable to let go of his previous existence, wanders back to the house that now holds his grieving partner. For the rest of the film C watches and waits. But why? For what?
Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) isn’t concerned with answering that question. Rather, he wants it to hover in the back of one’s mind and drift to the forefront after the film is over. He has brazenly crafted a film whose ostensible protagonist is motionless and wordless. As a ghost, C is jealous and wanting, unable to move on from the woman he adored and the house they called home. Trapped under the sheet with him, one stares at his lover and all those who pass through the house they once shared. A ghost he spots in the house next door is similarly stuck. “What are you waiting for?” C asks it. “I don’t remember,” the ghost replies.
Lowery’s film is unusual in that the ghost’s watching and waiting isn’t established in real time. Cinema is distinct from other artistic media in its power to disrupt our understanding of how place and time are related. We usually comprehend the passing of time through physical movement, but cinema allows for movement to be broken up and reassembled. Consider how David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) tangle up place and time. With each film one realizes he isn’t where he thought he was. In Gondry’s, time is woven into the protagonist’s faulty memory in a way that makes the viewer question which events are actually taking place. Lynch’s film seems to involve alternate realities where familiar characters suddenly have different homes, names, and personalities though they’re still connected to previous events in the film. Our common understanding of how time functions suddenly breaks down. This is the privilege of cinema—that it can display several possible moments in the same space and time, or spread several seconds of action over millennia, as in A Ghost Story. Like the films noted above, this one offers no clear answers. Through the dead man’s eyes, one can float through time and consider how it functions in our own lives when, physically or mentally, we too watch and wait, hanging on to people or moments that have already gone.
In A Ghost Story time is elastic: to disorient the viewer, Lowery doesn’t give one enough time to experience certain moments but grants an overabundance of time to linger on drawn-out takes. Soon after C’s death, M tearily ruminates on the pages of certain books, C’s ghost leering invisibly beside her. One wonders what she’s reading, and Lowery inspects a few pages, but each shot is so fleeting that one can grab only a few words. Their meaning remains a mystery, the very duration of the shots challenging us to let go.
At the other extreme lies the scene in which M, still traumatized by C’s death, comes home to a pie dropped off by her landlord. She peels away the foil and picks at the crust, as if she has nothing better to do. She meanders over to the silverware drawer and grabs a fork. Now taking slightly bigger bites, M sits down on the kitchen floor, the camera angle shifting to reveal C’s ghost standing ominously in the background. So begins what feels like the longest single shot in film history, as M grief-eats an entire pie in nine minutes and then throws up.
Though C is almost always still and staring, he travels from past to present to future so easily it boggles the mind. For example, Lowery allows one room in what seems like one moment to contain three different instances of M walking out the door. This odd passage of time is one of the first signs that C’s refusal to move on might be futile. Watching M walk out the door every day, eat a pie, read, and cry gives the ghost nothing. Eventually M packs up and leaves, and a family moves into the house in the next scene, but there’s no sense of time having passed. As the film progresses, the house is transformed from a single mother’s refuge to a college party house to a demolition site to a corporate skyscraper to a speck in a thriving futuristic cityscape to a frontier family’s campsite.
For Lowery, there’s no reincarnation, no circle of life, only a process of disengagement. One might be tempted to call his ghost patient, but that would suggest a linear narrative at work. Instead, Lowery’s obliteration of time renders C naive. He is a spectator—just as we are. A Ghost Story may be thinly plotted, but it’s thick with introspection, dodging any easy interpretation. It may well be all about time, but as C learns, time isn’t as useful as we might have thought. v