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A Ghost Story

IF YOU’VE FOUND yourself in the London Underground any time recently––no doubt crushed against three other people on a Tube that smells of sweat and makes you wish you hadn’t left your cattle prod at home––you may have noticed the distinctive posters for A Ghost Story pasted on the station walls, and the effusive praise that decorates the space around the image of its central character.

One of them reads “almost a masterpiece” and last night, as the lights came up in the screening room of the BFI Southbank, my immediate thought was that whoever wrote those words had not gone far enough. A Ghost Story is, put simply, one of the best films I’ve seen for a long time. This isn’t the post-film afterglow talking: David Lowery’s inventive film is a deeply affecting and unforgettable exploration of life, of love, and of grief, driven by a quite brilliant performance by Casey Affleck.

The film begins with a quotation from the opening line of Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House: “Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting.” An unnamed man (Affleck) is a struggling musician (complete with unruly mop of hair and beard) who lives with his wife (Rooney Mara) in a small house in suburbia. The house is small but spacious and contains a piano which, one night, discharges a loud noise, as if something had fallen on it.


Through the subtle fold and droop of the sheet’s fabric we understand The Ghost’s feelings: he is a sad and confused and childlike figure who seems not to understand his own existence. Lowery doesn’t invert the usual meditations on grief, which quite understandably place their focus on the living, but he does ask us to consider whether the dead are grieving too.


Later on, the man is killed in a car accident outside his home and his wife identifies his body at the morgue before covering him again in a white sheet. When no one is around, he––or rather his ghost––suddenly sits up. The sheet covers him entirely and drags along the floor, and there are two black holes where his eyes should be. In other words, he is a child’s idea of how a ghost would look.

Through the subtle fold and droop of the sheet’s fabric we understand The Ghost’s feelings: he is a sad and confused and childlike figure who seems not to understand his own existence. Lowery doesn’t invert the usual meditations on grief, which quite understandably place their focus on the living, but he does ask us to consider whether the dead are grieving too.

The dead, in Lowery’s universe, can affect the physical world in small and subtle ways––knocking a book off a shelf, for instance––but their movement is restricted to the house they lived in at the time of their death. It means for all ghosts, there is not only the immediate pain of separation from the world of the real and from their loved ones, and the frustration of being unable to communicate with them, but the added grief of watching them, in almost all cases, leave them forever for a second time.

A Ghost Story is not scary. It isn’t even creepy, because there’s something so endearing about these white-sheeted figures who straddle the worlds of the real and the supernatural. It is, however, sad and absurd and sometimes very funny in subtle ways (one of the ghosts, for instance, wears a flowery sheet).


There is a brilliant and lengthy scene in which the newly-widowed wife eats the best part of a pie left on her table by a well-meaning neighbour, the camera resting on her all the while, and if it feels like an eternity, spare a thought for our hero, The Ghost.


Throughout the film Lowery is patient (patience-testing, I don’t doubt, to some). A single shot will last minutes and he will pan very slowly from a given image. There is a brilliant and lengthy scene in which the newly-widowed wife eats the best part of a pie left on her table by a well-meaning neighbour, the camera resting on her all the while, and if it feels like an eternity, spare a thought for our hero, The Ghost. (I should say here that Mara is typically excellent throughout A Ghost Story, though she is, understandably, upstaged).

In fact, Lowery’s management of time and pace throughout the film is superb, and the events seems to run outside the particular and peculiar tempo of The Ghost himself in a subtle confirmation of his existence outside the world of the real. Time, it’s clear, is a major theme for Lowery: there is even at one point a memorable and oddly mesmerising nihilistic speech in which a character argues that humanity’s efforts are worthless because the universe will one day die.

The film grows increasingly dark and weird and thoughtful as it progresses, and concludes, or near enough concludes, with a hauntingly beautiful and music-filled scene that may or may not have teased a tear or two out of one usually composed reviewer. In a time when films about the supernatural are of the quiet, quiet, BANG variety, and designed to provide cheap and superficial thrills, this is something really, really special. It’s a masterpiece.

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