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A Ghost Story
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Academy Award winner Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as a young couple who - after being separated by loss - discover an eternal connection and a love that is infinite. An unforgettable meditation on love and grief, A GHOST STORY emerges ecstatic and surreal - a wholly unique experience that lingers long after the credits roll.
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Just to get things off in the right direction, I thought the movie was worth the effort to get through. And I do mean effort. There are long stretches where you just watch a woman eat a whole pie. I think there’s even a scene where you actually watch paint dry. It’s very difficult to get at exactly what the movie is saying; and, in fact, there are two possible interpretations. But there is a lot said about the meaning of mortality, grief and separation. That makes the movie worthwhile.
This is a movie about a guy who dies and comes back as a ghost. Not a “fanciful” ghost, or an articulate ghost, but a stereotypic one dressed in a white sheet with holes cut out for eyes. And for most of the movie, he just stares with those vacant eyes. It’s never really clear why he comes back. You get a feeling that he had a choice. After he “rises” in the hospital morgue, a square white window appears. And you think this was an invitation to enter another plane of being. But he just stares at it, it goes away, and the ghost goes home.
Home is a kind of run-down suburban ranch he shared with his wife (or partner). Once home, he never reveals himself to her – he just stares. After he comes home, time seems to accelerate and he watches his wife move on. We learn that the major disagreement he had with her in their marriage related to the house itself. She hated it. He loved it because he felt it had “history.” But he also cared for his wife and eventually agreed to move. But he was killed in a car crash shortly after he acts on that decision.
Time moves on at an exponential pace. He watches as his house is demolished and a futuristic city rises up around its former site. He leaps from the roof of one of those buildings and plunges into the past where he watches a pioneer settler family try to make a go of the land. But Indians kill them. Time comes full circle and he starts to relive his life in the house with his wife.
There were two important segments in this loop through history. First, the wife discloses that she was forced to move around a lot when she was a kid. And every time she moved, she left a little memento – a note with a poem or a comment. She would hide them in nooks or crevices where she thought they wouldn’t be disturbed. That way, she felt there would always be a part of her in her former surroundings. There would always be something familiar to her that she could return to. When her husband asked, “Did you ever return,” her answer was a terse, “no.”
The second important event was a rather bombastic monologue on the transience of human endeavor and existence, delivered by one of the later occupants of the house. “You’ll all die, your kids will die, and their kids will die. And even your attempts at immortality, your books, your works of art, they’ll be forgotten. Even the proton decays.”
But what does it all mean? Here’s what I think, and this is unfortunate. You can’t really understand the film without having some knowledge of the story quoted in the opening shots of the movie. It’s from “A Haunted House” by Virginia Wolff. In the story, a living couple is resident in an old haunted house. “Whatever hour you woke, there is a door shutting.” These were the sounds of a ghost couple rummaging about throughout the night. What was it the ghosts sought? It was a “treasure” hidden somewhere in the house. What was this treasure?” It was the love the ghosts had for each other in life and which they were seeking to recreate in death. The ghost husband explains their life together was “full of kisses without number.”
So what is it that ghosts do? They leave some important remnant of themselves in the places they haunt. This may be a “treasure” (something positive) or an “anti-treasure” (something characteristic but bad relating to their personalities.)
So it is possible that the protagonist ghost of the movie was trying to re-plant the love he had known while alive in the house. That would be his “treasure.” But the problem is this: nothing is permanent. The wife wanted to leave the house even before her husband’s death. And more so, the wife moved on after that death. So how does this all end? The movie ghost, after much effort, retrieved the farewell note left behind by the wife after she finally left the house “of kisses without number.” We are not shown what the note says. All we see is that the husband ghost’s sheet collapses and, presumably, he moves on to some other plane of existence – or he just ceases to be.
One of the two explanations I can give for this is that he realized there was no way to rekindle the love they shared. It was gone. It was time to move on. Like his wife said, after leaving these notes, she never returned. After he removed the note, there was no “bit of her” she (or he) could return to. His clinging to a past life only led to isolation and despair. Reading the note drove this home to him. But remember, there are two possible explanations.
The second possibility is that the “treasure” the contemporary ghost seeks is no treasure at all. But rather, this is a continuation of his past life – a life of isolation and self-absorption. Yes, he does love his wife. But in the movie his only real interaction with her is in bed. He spends most of his time working on his music. And remember the ultimate value of artistic endeavor conveyed in the bombastic monologue... He does get out of the house (as his wife remarks), possibly to play his music. But his wife is just trapped. So what he brought to the house was loneliness, sadness and isolation. That was his “anti-treasure.” In a way, he was dead and in hell until he realized this. Perhaps the note from the wall allowed him to see this so that he could “de-spirit.”
There were a few other weird issues with the movie. Why was it shot in a square format? Maybe it was to remind us of that window the ghost saw inviting him to another plane of existence. And maybe we were looking into another such plane ourselves? It was a weird, sad movie, but one worth thinking about. How do we live in light of such impermanence?
Casey Affleck’s performance didn’t really convey any of the great love of the ghost couple in the Virginia Wolff story. His performance was more in keeping with the second interpretation – he was demonstrating life in hell. Like I said, he just stared. And he wasn’t a particularly nice ghost. He scared little kids and broke things. Also, Rooney Mara’s performance didn’t demonstrate the profound grief you would expect from such a situation. It was all very understated.
Perhaps this understatement, and the pervasive sense of loneliness, boredom and disorientation were meant to get you to see through the square format window into the ghost’s realm of being. But the ghost and his wife led a pretty lonely life before his death. The wife complained about her isolation in the house. “You get out all the time, I have to come back here day after day,” she says. They only seemed to have one friend – the real estate agent that sold them the house. Rather than seeking the love of a former life, maybe the ghost was just continuing his former really depressing existence. I don’t know…
Look, this was a really depressing movie with a really difficult plotline. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. If you watch it and think about it, you’ll be sad. This, I guarantee you. Is it worth the slog? That’s the question. I think the movie offered a lot of insight into our state as ephemeral creatures. We are seriously flawed creatures and only have but a brief time to deal with our shortcomings. And once our time is up – well, that’s it. There’s no going back. We may leave some ghostly residue of ourselves (for better or worse) in the minds of those remaining. But we can’t undo our past lives.
In the end, I felt I came away learning a bit about myself and about the people around me. So I thought it was worth the slog.
A couple of warnings going forward. First, if you think that a dead person walking around in a white sheet with large eye holes is funny and portends a comedy, look elsewhere. There isn’t much funny going on here and you will be totally bored out of your mind. Second, while I don’t purposely try to provide spoilers, it is almost impossible not to do that with this film…but I’ll try. Lowry and his cinematographer, Andrew Droz Palermo, have decided to shoot this with an old-timey 1.66:1 aspect ratio. It even has rounded corners providing the look of an old postcard.
Lowry, who also wrote the film, uses his lovebirds from the aforementioned “ATBS” here too. C (Casey Affleck) is a musician and is married to M (Rooney Mara). There is a modest rift in their marriage that seems to revolve around C wanting to stay in their older single level North Texas home (shot in the DFW area). M wants to move. But there is likely more going on. In one scene, C hands M his headphones and puts on one of his compositions. It is a beautiful, eerie piece of electronica called “I Get Overwhelmed” (actually written by Daniel Hart and performed by his band Dark Rooms). You get to listen to the entire song so try to follow the lyrics. They may be able to provide some insight into the couple’s behavior. Hart by the way, provides the excellent musical score for the film. Pop/rock fans might also want to watch for a song midway in the film (during a house party) called “Last One” which was co-written by Keisha and performed by Stereo Jane.
Early in the story, C is killed near his home in an auto accident. There is a scene at the hospital where M comes to see C’s body for the last time. The scene seems to last forever and is shot from one camera position. After M leaves the room, the camera stays focused on the body, covered with a large white sheet. Suddenly, if not surprisingly, the body encased in the sheet sits up. The spirit returns to his last home. Unable to speak or be seen, he spends his time watching M. For C’s spirit, time takes on new meaning. There is no sense of it. In addition to that scene in the morgue there is another long one where M sits on the kitchen floor and eats an entire pie with no cuts. Mara plays it for all its worth, taking large mouthfuls before stabbing at the pie as if it had done her wrong.
Eventually, M moves on and out of the house. Before she leaves, she writes a note, folds it and slips it inside a crack in the wall, sealing it with new paint. We don’t know what’s on the note. From what I learned, nobody does outside of Rooney Mara. New people buy the house, but C’s ghost remains and he isn’t too happy about it. He is seemingly awaiting M’s return. Time passes, decades, perhaps even centuries. We don’t know for sure. But the rural home is replaced with colorful gigantic skyscrapers. Then, a flashback to the 1800’s as Texas is being settled for the first time. Say what? From here, it gets more confusing and I’m not sure what it all means.
I do know that while a bit frustrated, the movie has stuck in my brain for a couple days. The movie is sure to have a narrow audience, first and foremost David Lowry. The rest of us are just along for the ride and will have to figure it out on our own terms.