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A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story

He never once even gets to say "BOO!"

dir: David Lowery


This is such a strange and beautiful movie. I cannot believe it exists.

I cannot believe people convinced other people that this was going to work in any way. If you watch it and describe the premise to people, they will laugh in your fucking face.

I exaggerate often and in extreme ways, but this is one of the few times where my words barely grasp the strangeness on display.

But that’s not to say that the film itself is that out there or trippy. It’s not. It’s really simple. It’s extraordinarily simple. What I’m trying to convey is that something like this is rarely ever made into a film. Maybe a comedy sketch, maybe an animated short, but an actual movie?

That could be part of the appeal. It’s certainly not the presence of Casey Affleck, who somehow managed to become the worst Affleck in a family where he isn’t even the one who played a burly Batman who kills people.

No, his crimes are in the real world, not on the cinema screen. Even before he won an Oscar for playing the lead in Manchester-by-the-Sea a number of women accused him of sexual assault and harassment, and, by the fact that he paid good money to quieten their voices we can rest assured that he is free to do this crap again in future. He didn’t direct the film at least, and though he’s in it, as in, you see him for a bit, for most of the movie you can’t see him directly.

Why? Well, because his character is a ghost, with a Halloween-like sheet over himself, with two dark holes cut out of the sheet for the eyes.

A young couple (Affleck and Rooney Mara) move into a crappy looking house in, I dunno, rural Texas maybe? A couple of unexplained but harmless things happen, a few mysterious sounds, but it’s fine.

Then the chap dies, and something wakes up, wearing the sheet, and walks all the way home.

He sees the real estate agent drop off a pie, a consolation pie? A commiseration pie with a note?

His young wife comes home, looking bereft. He stands and watches her. She does not see him.

There’s a long scene where she eats the pie, and the ghost keeps watching. She eats and eats, and what follows is inevitable. The ghost can only watch. It goes for like an hour. There’s this glow, or maybe reflected late afternoon light, just off to the side. It reoccurs a few times throughout the movie, including the very end, but, you know, just like Nick Cave said, Death Is Not the End.

Time does not move for the ghost like it does for the rest of us, at a steady pace, at a linear rate. He views his darling wife leave the house in the morning multiple times, many multiples of times, and they all seem to happen one after the other, because the intervening time doesn’t register with him.

We don’t know just how much time is passing, but it’s a lot. Enough time has passed, perhaps, such that the young widow brings someone home to assuage her loneliness. The ghost doesn’t like this. The ghost doesn’t like this at all, and makes his feelings felt through the house. He or it or however it identifies does not have a corporeal form, doesn’t and can’t do much if anything, but he is connected, anchored to the house itself.

This convinces the young widow that it’s time to move away, and move on. Before the ghost became a ghost, just before he died, the couple argued about moving, about leaving the house. She wanted to go, he wanted to stay, but he had just resolved to agree with the move the night before… And she spoke of having a habit, a routine of finding a special spot in any house where she lived, where she would leave a note to herself, on the off chance that she ever found her way back.

Before she leaves this house, with its own in-built ghost, she writes a note and slides it into a crack in the wall, paints over it, and then she’s gone. The ghost keeps scratching at the wall where he knows there is a note, patiently, mechanically scratching away to get to it, with no success, for what could be centuries.

A family, a mum and two kids move in. I know I’m projecting here, but the ghost seems unhappy with this change in circumstances. He seems like he can’t believe it, but what’s he meant to do?

Next door to where he is, he sees another of his kind, another ghost, and they, too, are similarly anchored to the house, waiting for someone to return, but not being able to remember for whom they wait endlessly.

How they communicate isn’t really elaborated upon, as it’s conveyed with on screen subtitles, but there’s something sweet, sad and funny about it, at least for me.

The ghost, our ghost, doesn’t like seeing this family in what must be his house, and rages at them, at some point, unhappy with the fact that they are happy in his house. He scares them, the children can almost see him, or maybe they do see him, but who would believe them? Still, the family disappears, as does all their stuff, so the ghost wins, you’d think.

And he goes right back to scratching at the wall.

We don’t know how much more time has passed, but the house has other people in it again, a whole bunch of people. Is it a housewarming party, is it a lease ending party, is it a bunch of squatters? The ghost doesn’t know so neither do we, but he must have spent some time listening to a drunk jerk pontificating so loudly and at some length, about how pointless even the greatest works of art are since the universe will eventually collapse in on itself.

It’s an argument I loathe, but the fact that it’s being made by Will Oldham, Will Fucking Oldham, of Palace Brothers, Bonnie Prince Billy and every variation thereof fame, means I have to take it more seriously than I would otherwise choose to.

It’s always meant to be a gutting, clarifying statement, but it’s one I find fruitless regardless of how true or false it ultimately is. And the ghost doesn’t care, so neither do I.

The house, looking even more rundown than before, is not long for this world. It is being destroyed, almost contemptuously, around the ghost. The house next door is copping it too. He sees his neighbour ghost, who realises the people they are waiting for will never come back, and collapses in on herself. I have no reason to know that the ghost is female, because what is gender to a ghost anyway. It just felt that way, but what does it matter.

The ghost persists where he has always been. He nearly got the note before the house was destroyed, and now he wanders the canyons of the futuristic skyscrapers that have taken the house’s place.

The ghost has persisted into a Blade Runner-esque future, which he no longer has a connection to, so he jumps off a tall building.

He’s a ghost, though, so what’s that supposed to do? I can’t really say that I understand the metaphysical nature of what the story portrays, but at the very least I accept that the ghost is not bound in time. The future and the past ultimately become part of a circle, and so where once the house was there is nothing, but the ghost is seeing something, seeing a family on the same bit of land, perhaps centuries before the house was ever there.

And then he sees that family killed, decay, and be reclaimed by nature. And then he’s watching himself, as in, still alive, with his young wife. He is haunting himself. He even gets to the recursive stage where he, as a ghost, observes himself, as a ghost, observing what he observed, as a ghost, before he finally gets to the note.

Holy shit! This film exists!

Why have I bothered to outline stuff that happened in a film, that people who’ve seen the film have doubtless already seen for themselves? Because…I still can’t believe that I saw what I saw.

I watched this flick playing on SBS just last week, and then after I watched it, not believing what I’d seen, I rewatched it again on SBS On Demand, just to make sure that I hadn’t hallucinated it.

I hadn’t. It’s real. It exists.

I loved it, unambiguously. I can’t believe they made it, with money and actors and these ideas. It sounds macabre, or gothic, but it’s not like that at all. While the ghost itself has an eerie quality to it, you don’t feel like you’re watching something supernatural, or something that’s meant to be frightening. I can imagine that when the flick was released there were a lot of angry patrons who stumbled into a cinema thinking it was going to be a cheesy horror flick.

They would have been fucking ropeable.

It does require a patience that most flicks don’t require. Someone who watches flicks hoping for stuff to occur will be profoundly angered by a flick where very little if anything happens, in the dramatic sense. But we see a lot of stuff, and that’s what movies are meant to be about. Seeing stuff.

The feelings it engenders, the thoughts, are like few others that films usually provoke in me. I know there’s a whole sub-genre of flicks about ghosts wanting to stick around with their loved ones, like, um, Ghost, and Truly Madly Deeply and a few others, but this is not like those at all. I may not be sure of much, but I’m pretty sure it’s not even about love. There’s nothing romantic about the flick at all. It has long, incredibly long stretches without any dialogue, and without the crutch that a lot of flicks use, being persistent voiceover, to explain what’s happening and what we should be thinking about what we’re seeing. And is the better for it (without it).

That’s a good reference point: it’s like a much shorter Terrence Malick film without the goddamn ever-present pretentious voiceover narration narrating everything the ghost thinks, feels or misses or remembers.

We don’t need that at all.

A Ghost Story is a great film that few people saw and even fewer will remember. But I’ll remember. I’ll remember it under after the end of time.

10 reasons why this shouldn’t be confused with any of those ludicrous Tsui Hark movies called A Chinese Ghost Story out of 10

“so that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.” - A Ghost Story