A young couple, in Dallas, Texas, are deciding whether or not to move. The woman, Rooney Mara, wants to move and the man, Casey Affleck, does not. The man is killed in a car crash and becomes trapped in limbo, forced to watch life go on and reflect on the concept of time and meaning of life.
A Ghost Story is a romantic love story meets time travel meets existentialism. The film starts off in a typical manner. We see a couple discussing the prospect of moving and the viewer gets the idea that their relationship is not on solid ground. The woman wants to move to a new place, something that she mentions as being a regular thing in her past. The man, however, wants to stay put and work on his music. The couple clearly have difficulty communicating and are becoming distant. Soon into the film, the man is killed in a car accident outside of the house and becomes trapped in limbo.
The bulk of the film is from the perspective of the man as a ghost. He is hesitant to continue on to the “other side” after death and stays in limbo. The ghost is purposed with escaping limbo. As a ghost he is not visible yet has the ability to interact with his surroundings, knocking over pictures, breaking dishes, etc… This makes him an observer of his surroundings, able to witness life after his death. As the viewer, we see snippets of the ‘eternity’ that he experiences.
From the start of the film until soon after his death, time progresses slowly. This is portrayed through long uncut sequences. The extremely long shots slow down the pace and show the movie in what feels like real time. After the accident, the film continues to be made up of long shots. However, the longer that the man is in the “ghost state”, the faster time passes.
The ghost lingers in the house that he shared with the woman. His desire to stay in the house eventually haunts him. As the woman progresses through grief and begins to move on and out of the house, the ghost still remains. When the woman leaves the house, she leaves behind a note that she folds up and leaves wedged in the trim of a doorway. This is something that she mentions early in the film as a ritual that she began in her youth when she would move. His mission throughout the remainder of the film is to extract that note from the wall in order to see her message.
A major turning point in the story is when the ‘Prognosticator’, played by Will Oldham, explains his forecast of the future of humanity. One where our actions, creations, thoughts, experiences, and any other facet of human life, will become irrelevant over time. In the short term, the human experience can be appreciated, shared, and remembered. However, in the long term, the earth will inevitably eradicate human life, or, human life will sustain until the sun becomes a red giant and engulfs the earth. So when you look at life on a long term, macro, scale, death and oblivion is inevitable. While this is a morose view on the trajectory of human life, it likely isn’t wrong. Unless the human species is able to transport life into a new solar system, then that will inevitably be the fate of earth and humankind, if we still exist.
If you look at life in terms of the lifespan of the universe, then of course it will be dismal. Human existence is only a small blip on the timeline of the universe. Thinking about life on those terms alone will only lead to a bad mental state and feelings of loneliness and solitude. The more fulfilling way to think about life is on a micro scale, not macro. Human existence may only be a blip when compared to the lifespan of the universe, but life itself is experienced on a much smaller scale. Everyday events are much larger when compared to the average human lifespan, instead of the age of the universe.
The idea that any single event or creation can be influential to humankind and still be insignificant to the path of the universe is explained by the ‘Prognosticator’. Using his example in the movie, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 has been influential since it was written and it would perhaps be influential till the end of humanity, given specific circumstances. Even though that song would inevitably be lost through either a lack of passing it down through generations or through the extinction of humanity, it would still have brought joy to and inspired many generations. Instead of being an insignificant blip on the scale of the age of universe, like human existence. Symphony No. 9 is now a large ‘event’ on the scale of human existence.
This concept can be viewed on an even more micro level. In the above example, the longevity of Symphony No. 9 makes it monumental in terms of its influence. However, this is not the norm experienced in everyday life. If we compare the Man’s song to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on that same scale, then it would amount to nothing. His song likely only exists on the woman’s ipod. However, in terms of their individual relationship that song is extremely impactful. Considering the scale of the woman’s life, that song will be way more than a blip. It may linger in her conscious for the greater part of her entire life.
It is important to nurture the relationships that you have with those around you. Some creations, experiences, thoughts might persist till the end of time, unlikely, but they will definitely influence those you choose to share them with. Everyone that intersects with your life course, effects both the trajectory of their course and your own. On the large, macro, scale your course is likely meaningless, but on the small, micro, scale it is substantially meaningful.
Coming back to the reason the ghost is in limbo and why the note brings him peace. It would seem that he is left in limbo to realize what was important to him. As the viewer we see their emotionally distant relationship, she has difficulty communicating with him. She tries to get him to talk to her about moving and he is focused solely on making music. The music he is making is revealed to be a song divulging his feelings of loneliness and solitude. Perhaps he was so focused inward that he was unable to fully appreciate the love that was right there next to him.
If this is the case, then the reason the paper brings him peace is because he is finally able to connect with her. The note functions as a direct connection that he was seeking prior to his death and for the duration of his time in limbo. This ghost was only able to get the note after experiencing the meaningless that time brings, on such a large scale. The ghost is then able to realize that the relationships we foster are what are important.
The editing by David Lowery, who also wrote and directed A Ghost Story, accented the film well. The long exposures forced the audience to focus on everything happening in that shot. Slowing down the pace made the scenes more emotional, sometimes uncomfortably so, and also helped emphasize the sped up journey through time we see later in the film.
When time begins to speed up, we see other interesting techniques. For example, the scene where we are watching the woman leave the house for the day from the perspective of the ghost. We see her leave the bathroom and walk out the door, then she walks out of the bathroom again with a new outfit and walks out the door. This happens several times in a row. This was a cool way to show time rapidly passing by as the ghost is forced to simply observe, as if frozen while the world fast forwards around him.
This extremely low budget, $100,000, film was successful, considering it made close to $2M in the box office. Lowery succeeded with a unique approach and execution of the atypical story and subject matter.
Directed by: David Lowery
Cinematography: Andrew Droz Palermo
Written by: David Lowery
Edited by: David Lowery
Music by: Daniel Hart
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham
Runtime: 1h 32m
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance
Distributed by: A24