Film Review – A Ghost Story (Second Take)
A Ghost Story
There is a scene in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story in which a newly minted young widow, played by Rooney Mara, sits on the kitchen floor of her simple ranch-style house and eats almost an entire pie, in real time, as the ghost of her newly deceased husband, played by Casey Affleck, looks on. At first, she cuts into what looks like pumpkin pie as if to take only a small slice, then scoops around the slice, then starts shoveling whole chunks in her mouth, long past any desire for taste or texture. It’s the most honestly connected scene in a film about the connections between people and the yearning for memory and legacy, and the desire to be enveloped by love.
Death, especially in the South, is countered with food by well-intentioned family and friends. The richer and creamier and sweeter the dish, the better, because the departed’s family will need to stress-eat, and grief-eat, and possibly rage-eat. The bitch of the situation is that nothing tastes as it should; it’s like you’re eating a simulation of a casserole or cake. Your mouth feels the proper texture and it signals the brain to pick up on the requisite smells and tastes, but though the senses are in working order, there is a repugnant falsity because they don’t make you feel what they did in the past. Suddenly, you’re eating someone’s sympathy or well wishes or good intentions, not a slice of sweet pumpkin pie. So you eat a bit more or faster and maybe it will start to feel right again. It’s usually a losing battle, and as with Mara’s character, the body rejects it long before the mind or spirit will.
It’s rare that I watch a movie about death that understands this and presents all the aspects of a life in relation to the elasticity of time. In the opening moments of the film, we see a couple snuggling and whispering on the couch, then later in bed together. There is a sharp thud against the piano keys in the front room which startles them awake and they both investigate, but nothing is found. Returning to bed, the camera lingers over them in a languid top-shot as they gingerly settle back to sleep. The camera patiently gazes on the lovers touching and nuzzling and moving together, folding limbs and readjusting towards a mutual peace. This tender scene and the peace it conveys is the little flame within the film to which the man’s spirit tries to return after he is killed in a car accident on the road right in front of the house.
Perspective is fluid as the camera often shoots over the shoulder of Mara and later Affleck (neither character is named), at which the other is alternately shown out of focus. The action within such scenes is superseded by the former character’s reaction to the elements around the negative space engulfing the latter, seesawing between feelings of security and distress. Interiors can become desolate as exteriors grow increasingly familiar, as when Affleck wakes up in the morgue and walks back to his house, still covered in a hospital sheet. Andrew Droz Palermo’s beautiful cinematography of the tiny cloaked entity against the high Texas plains evokes a warmer and more natural tone, steadily drawn towards the flame of home, compared to the cold, stark, and empty house in which Mara now finds herself. Similarly, Daniel Hart‘s lush score alternates between almost ethereal heights of violins to the sombre, heavier cellos as we witness the couple’s physical versus spiritual connections. The significance of familiar things like her husband’s side of the bed, a dish in the drying rack, or even trash in the wastebasket has now changed to Before the traumatic event, while she must live in the After.
From the hospital onward, we never see Affleck without his sheet, two eyeholes cut on top forming bulging, black teardrops. Surprisingly, this doesn’t impact the intensity of his scenes at all. We see his isolation, or sadness, or frustration from a simple cock of his head or his posture or placement in a room, eventually moving from passive spectator to active participant and back again. Ironically, in the later passive scenes, he gains a more empathetic perspective on the memories of his life.
As Mara begins to inch towards a new After and away from Before, eventually moving out of the house, he remains consumed by things that were left unsaid and questions left unanswered, wandering the house alone as new tenants move in and out. I loved the shot of Mara in the car, looking at the house. She’s not so much running away from loss and grief as moving forward as planned, sort of a continued promise to her husband rather than an abandonment. To him, the building was a home and a place where he felt a connection; to her, it was simply a house and he was her home. It takes time for him to realize what was happening in their relationship, and an eventual assumption of her perspective in their life together, as well as an awareness of the people who existed before and after him, leads to his maturation even in death.
As Lowery shows the return of organic matter to the elements, so the ghost relives all the tiny hours of tiny days against the wide expanse of time like a north Texas prairie. The beats of a song funneled through earphones echo in the heartbeat thudding underneath a lover’s skin, and one person’s frustration at inertia is the ironic inspiration the other needs to create, which forms a precarious cycle. Only when the ghost realizes this and his connection to his wife’s and his own After can he reach that flame of peace again.