Anybody who has viewed A Ghost Story will likely balk at my including it in this horror-based month-long marathon. I get it. There’s maybe one total jump scare, made up of combining several small jump scares from different parts of the film. The rest isn’t particularly dread-inducing. While the ghostly figure does lurk in the house he lived in after his death, his visual depiction as the child-like sheet with cutout eyes negates much of the spooks another film might wring out of the setup. So if it isn’t quite a horror movie, how does it use horror tropes to tell a story about time, life, death, and the quest to mean something?
Well, it’s an interesting question. The film opens with a quote from Virgina Woolf’s “A Haunted House,” “Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting.” It’s the film’s first attempt to place the viewer in the very particular mindset they’ll need to follow along with the film. Literary, a little spooky, kind of wry. Those words are also, it should be noted, some of the few words in the film. This is a story told primarily through the cinematic language of images with sound and music complementing those images to create a mood unlike most films. There is a ghost in the house, it is a poltergeist that can influence the world around it, but instead of seeing the film alongside the family who moves into the ghost’s house, we get all up inside the ghost’s perspective.
The ghost is played by Casey Affleck under a long white sheet. He leaves his body after a few minutes in the film, and the rest follows his experiences as he watches his wife grieve and then move away. For any other movie, that might be enough, but David Lowery, who also directed last year’s remarkably charming Pete’s Dragon remake, goes much further with the premise. Eventually, the ghost experiences centuries of time passing in an instant. He watches as buildings rise and fall in the spot where he lived his brief life. He sees how his presence scares a young boy, who can at least sense him if not see him fully. Because there isn’t a whole lot of talking, Lowery uses horror tropes to communicate how the ghost is feeling and how the people in the house feel about his presence (or lack thereof).
In the film’s most talked about scene, Rooney Mara, who plays Affleck’s wife, sits on the floor and devours a pie straight out of the dish. It’s a long shot, filmed from the side in the film’s beguiling but beautiful 1.33:1 aspect ratio. What starts as rote eating where we can feel her detachment from the world soon becomes a kind of voracious consumption that seems to indicate a first rush of feeling about her recently departed husband. It is a scene so full of emotion that I didn’t even notice the ghost in the opposite corner from Mara until half of its long length had passed. What other movies exploit for a jump scare or a tension-builder becomes a husband’s powerless witnessing of his wife’s grief. But it’s also still shocking. It’s emotionally intense, a human moment of pain filmed as one character feels deeply while the other becomes less and less attached to a human perspective. That’s why it is so long, I think. It is one of three long shots of one action that dominate the early goings here. The rest of the film is meditative, certainly, but the three shots connect us to the humans and then unleash us to consider the world from the point of view of an immortal being.
There are so many ways that A Ghost Story is similar to mother! that I can’t help but think they were developed together somehow. Both films borrow horror tropes but put them to vastly different uses, both center around a house, or at least a place in the world, both bend time to create a different sense of temporal rules, and both consider the long view of life. The idea that what has happened before will happen again is explored in intriguingly different ways in each of these films, and I’d love to read a consideration of how they use both their narrative structure and their formal techniques to represent these ideas and come to wildly different ends. Where mother! is an intense critique of humanity and Christianity, A Ghost Story eventually shows itself to be a film not about time, not about love, grief, place, or ghosts, but rather a movie about everything which uses those elements as a way of communicating. It is a film that could not be translated to any other medium without losing some of its small wit or big emotional impact.