Some films create a sense of wonder at the spectacle on display, the lavish beauty of the images and the sense of engagement with the characters. They can spark questions as to how great beauty can exist in the world. Or, what might have shaped the characters we see on the screen and where could have they come from?
A Ghost Story, the new release from writer-director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), belongs to this select class. In a recent phone interview, I was able to press him on the origin of his quite haunting take on the existence of the particular ghost in the film, the spirit of a dead husband referred to only as C (played by Academy Award-winner Casey Affleck), who cannot seem to give up his attachment to his wife M (Rooney Mara) and the home they shared.
“It all really began with the image of the ghost,” Lowery says. “The image on the poster predates this movie because I loved the concept of a serious film that revolved around such a silly image.”
And what an image it is! Affleck’s ghost rises from the table in the morgue, completely shrouded in a sheet, soon after M leaves after identifying her husband’s body. At first glance, it recalls the hokey childishness of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Yet, in the hands of another filmmaker, operating in a different genre, this could have been a horrific resurrection on par with the mythic return of a supernatural slasher.
Instead, Lowery lets the ghost sit and acquaint itself with its surroundings and its new state of being. In doing so, the ghost loses that potential association with Casper. But it could also be a Halloween costume. When the ghost turns finally to face the audience, we notice two blackened cutout eyeholes, but nothing else. After fully assessing the world, the ghost stands and the drape of the cloth obscures the body. We know (assume) that Affleck is underneath, and this generates questions as to how he might be able to articulate a “performance” of any distinction.
“There’s something so naïve and charming about that costume,” Lowery says, clearly amused by the challenge. “And removing it from the context of Halloween and placing it in an empty house or a place where it doesn’t necessarily feel like it belongs just was really interesting and emotional. It made me laugh, but it was also a sad, melancholy and lonely image.”
Loneliness certainly becomes the dominant sense we derive from the image, which is surprising. That initial silliness of watching the sheet drift about the frames, so present and damned near comically tangible as it dances just out of reach of M or the living characters it shares the frame with, dissipates and we are left with the haunting isolation and the longing to connect that wafts off the form.
“It was an image I felt you could hang an entire film on,” Lowery says. And his point is proven.
His belief in the image was so strong that when I pressed Lowery as to what the film might have looked like with a more traditional conception of the ghost, his response is quick. “It wouldn’t have been made,” he says. “The bedsheet came before anything else. So, had I veered from that course, I don’t think I would have made the movie.”
He places great and obvious faith in his idea for this presentation of the ghost. But even more hinges on tweaking the haunted house genre by telling the story from the perspective of the ghost. It is this otherworldly character that grounds us far more than any living person in the film — even M, who we see struggling mightily with her grief and loss. It is the ghost’s emotional arc that is compelling, swinging from loneliness to rage while watching M begin to move on with her life to the point of leaving the house. The ghost reacts violently to others entering and taking over the space, attempting to make it their own. For whatever reason, it cannot leave.
Time passes, rocketing forward and then mysteriously folding back onto itself, and the ghost remains. In A Ghost Story, Lowery pulls off the neatest trick of all with this haunting image. He teases us with the idea that humanity survives into the afterlife. (Opens Friday at the Esquire Theatre.) (R) Grade: A