“At 50,” George Orwell opined, “everyone has the face he deserves.” But Orwell died still in his 40s. What if you never get the face you deserve? “How can the gods meet us face to face till we have faces?” asked the protagonist of C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces.
The title character in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story has no face. It had a face once, though it was perhaps still a decade or so from full deserving. The last time we see that face, chronologically at least, it is the face of a corpse lying on an embalming table.
A sheet is pulled up, covering the face, and it is never uncovered again, though the title character’s story is just beginning. No: It is not a story, nor a journey, nor anything else implying linear movement or progress. There is a story, but it is not the ghost’s; the story goes on without him. He is the title character, but not the protagonist, for a prot-agonist is the primary contestant or combatant in some conflict, and his struggle is over.
As is often the case with ghosts, there is a love story. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a married couple, known only as C and M, living in a dilapidated ranch house to which C is more attached than M.
One of the film’s themes, expressed in different ways in C and M, is the human desire to leave a mark, to seek one’s future in connections in the past. For C, this means putting down roots, holding onto one’s history; it is also connected to his music.
M has a different approach: She is comfortable leaving a part of herself behind and moving on. In frequent moves in her past, she would write little notes to herself, reminders of who she was at the time, and hide them where they might go unfound for decades, in case she should ever return. But if she does not, who would ever know what it said?
The film sketches their relationship in relaxed, intimate terms: not a perfect relationship, but a deep bond. Watching C and M interact, I wonder where they would be in a decade or so.
A decade can be felt as an eternity or as the blink of an eye. When someone dies, time can seem to dilate and expand at the same time: The expected future collapses into nonexistence, and an unforeseen future telescopes outward into an interminable slog of empty, oppressive days and hours and minutes going nowhere.
A Ghost Story suggests this in a memorable early scene in which, in two lengthy, unbroken shots, a grief-stricken character silently, methodically attacks and eats an entire pie in one sitting while fading sunlight dims on the wall in the background — a make-or-break moment that will tell most viewers whether this film is for them. It is a compulsive act, affording no comfort, but reflecting, perhaps, a profound loss of faith in the future.
This is the world as it is experienced by the grieving. How is it experienced by the grieved?
At the heart of A Ghost Story is an audacious visual metaphor. Like many effective metaphors, it is so straightforwardly literal and even absurd that there is no questioning or cross-examining it; like Kafka’s cockroach, or like the pie scene, it challenges you either to shake your head and turn away, or to take the plunge.
There are many ways to represent the idea of a ghost. A figure entirely covered in a bedsheet with eyeholes cut in it is perhaps the broadest caricature of the idea — a silly, naively childish image, one more suggestive of Scooby-Doo or lighthearted Halloween sequences (à la E.T.) than a serious ghost story.
Yet Lowery finds power in the image’s very absurdity. On the one hand, we can still see the shape of the actor’s body under its drapings; when the light is right, we can even see the silhouetted figure through the cloth. Yet it is so silent, so slow and often still, that it becomes first arresting, then poignant, and finally unbearably sad.
The cloth hangs in painterly folds and shadows, trailing gracefully on the ground when the ghost must move, or looking like a still-life drapery study when it doesn’t.
The oval-shaped eyeholes gaze impotently, seeing but not bearing witness, for those who bear witness must be able to report what they see. Even when it turns out that ghosts can communicate with other ghosts, each remains locked in the world of its own interests, tied to the life and the people it has lost, to memories that grow ever more distant with the unfelt passing of time.
Lowery’s bedsheet ghost is the polar opposite of the cutting-edge computer-animated fantasy figure at the center of his last film, Disney’s soulful remake of Pete’s Dragon.
Elliot the dragon was as cuddly and expressive and interactive as Weta’s effects wizards could make him, despite being not really there. With the ghost, the filmmakers appear to have taken the simplest and least sophisticated means of effacing a real actor’s vitality, presence and expressiveness.
It’s not quite as minimalist as it first seems. The eyeholes, like those of a cartoon bedsheet ghost, are jet-black gaps offering no glimpse of flesh beneath, no glint of iris or white of sclera. And the way the sheet drapes and moves around the actor invisibly suggests a more substantial costuming effort than a quick trip to the linen closet with a pair of scissors.
Even the ghost’s slow movements are enhanced a bit by shooting much of its footage at a slightly increased frame rate (33 frames per second rather than 24, which slows down movements perceptibly if not very noticeably). Enhancing the lo-fi, nostalgic feel, the film is shot in a boxy, nearly square aspect ratio with rounded corners, like old slide-projector images.
For both the living and the departed, death is a profoundly isolating, lonely experience. The memory of love and closeness is there, and both parties reach out at different moments in conscious or unconscious effort to touch the other, but no real contact is possible.
When an actor adopts a neutral expression, viewers will perceive in it the emotion suggested not only by the context, but by what they bring to it, as well. The ghost, of course, is the blankest of canvases, or very nearly, since the movements of head and shoulders can convey some emotion, though this physical performance too has been made as simple as possible. In a way, this parallels the depiction of human grief, also been stripped of outward show and presented as interiorly as possible.
Twice the movie contemplates transcendence, but both times it turns to contemplate the riddle of mortality in this-worldly terms.
First, in a movie with generally invisible effects, there is exactly one conspicuous special-effects shot: a shining portal opening before our ghost, beckoning to the great beyond. When it makes no move, the portal closes, and it shuffles off.
Much later, at a party, a slightly drunken guest holds forth on the meaning of life in the face of mortality, prefacing his observations with an important qualification: If you have God, the question of the meaning of life looks very different and more hopeful.
People turn for meaning to art or music, another way of leaving a mark (though even the best symphonies, he says, were written for God), but in the end the death of all things — not only of individuals and civilizations, but of planets and finally the universe itself — effectively reduces all human activity to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Is the movie despairing, then? Perhaps not. Eventually the world changes by stages so utterly around our ghost that nothing remains to tie him to it. Yet if space for him has become as confining as the four walls of his house (whether or not they are there), time is more fluid, and if the past cannot be changed, a second chance may be offered, in some tiny way, to redeem it.
Caveat Spectator: Some marital sensuality (nothing explicit); aftermath of a deadly accident and a violent attack; an obscene sexual reference. Older teens and up.