A Ghost Story (2017)

Movie Info

Movie Info

David Lowery
Run Time
1 hour and 32 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★4.5 out of 5

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 32 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.

Song of Solomon 8:6-7

Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness.

Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools?…

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Ecclesiastes 2:14-16, 24-26

Director/writer David Lowery knows that less is best in a story dealing with the supernatural, so in his first film after last year’s wonderful Pete’s Dragon he seems to be following the lead of the enigmatic director Terence Malik. His camera lingers and lingers on its subject, a single shot lasting from a minute to one that is almost five minutes long. Clearly Mr. Lowery’s film is not for those used to films like Fast and Furious, so be forewarned. Also, he does not explain much, so be prepared to be challenged and left at the end wondering what has just happened. Do not see this film by yourself, but watch it in company with others who enjoy the unconventional and the challenging in their film fare. This is a film that demands to be discussed.

Forget the usual ghost story set in an old towering Gothic mansion and lightning-streaked night with a bare-branched tree swaying in the wind. Most of this film is set in an ordinary low-roofed ranch house located outside a Texas city. A husband listed only as C (Casey Affleck) lives there with his wife M (Rooney Mara). About their only conversation we (half) hear is their quibbling about moving out of the lonely house. Then, with no warning, C is returning home when he is killed in a head-on car crash within sight of the house. We do not see the actual crash, just its aftermath.

Cut to a hospital where in a long shot of M is lifting the end of the sheet to identify C’s body. She quietly leaves the room, the white sheet again covering the whole body. The camera holds the shot, and holds it–for what seems like an eternity but probably is just a couple of minutes. The body is immobile, and then at last it sits up, still covered by the sheet. It gets up and walks out of the room. With two large eye-holes the ghost looks like one of those impromptu Halloween costumes that a mother desperate for ideas might make for her child.

The ghost walks back to the house to watch his grieving wife. Inside the house a panel of light appears in the wall in front of the ghost. I take it to be a portal leading to the next world, but the ghost does not enter it, which called to mind the genre’s device that ghosts hover around because of unfinished business. (In a film that I loved, The Lovely Bones, a murdered young girl refuses to follow a line of other murdered girls to heaven because the serial killer wants to kill her sister also.)

The ghost observes the events in the house. A neighbor comes by and leaves a pie. Later M sits on the kitchen floor, her back against a cabinet, and joylessly starts to eat the pie. She of course cannot see the ghost watching her from across the room.This unedited shot lasts for around five minutes! Her grief is so great that she at last abandons the remains of it. He observes M sifting through and packing their belongings and then moving away.

The ghost is immaterial and yet can make mess with the electricity and lift things. He seems able to flit through time as well, observing a pair of future tenants who are hosting a party. A man called Prognosticator (Will Oldham) inflicts on the guests a monologue dealing with being remembered, “We build our legacy piece by piece and maybe the whole world will remember you or maybe just a couple of people, but you do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone.” But he goes on to explain this is futile, evoking Beethoven, philosophy, the winding down of the universe, and oblivion, much as the author of Ecclesiastes might were he alive today.

The ghost often looks out a window, sometimes seeing in a nearby house another ghost watching and signing to him. Another dead person with unresolved issues?  Bulldozers arrive and tear down the two houses A large building rises, with our ghost roving through it, at first through its empty halls, and then when it is occupied by office workers. He even moves back in time to a pioneer family who camp beside their covered wagon, presumably on the same spot.

There is also a scene of C and M conversing when they lived together.  She tells him, “When I was little and we used to move all the time, I’d write these notes and I would fold them up really small. And I would hide them.” “What’d they say?” he asks, and she replies, “They’re just things I wanted to remember so that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.”

M, before she packs up and moves out of the house writes a note and stuffs it into a slit in the wall that is then covered over. At several points in the film the ghost tries to extricate her note. At the conclusion, he succeeds, and…

I found the ending very puzzling. What has happened to the ghost? And then, I remembered that they story began with a quote from Virginia Woolf’s short-short story “Haunted House.” Finding it on the Internet, I read it—the story of long dead lovers coming back and searching for a “treasure,” one far more precious than silver and gold—and had that “Aha” moment. I invite you to do the same. It is a love story and an existential meditation on our impermanence in the universe, one of those ethereal movies to which truly belongs the label “rewarding.”

This review with a set of questions will be in the Aug. 2017 issue of VP.


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