A House is not a Home: On A Ghost Story

David Lowery’s hypnotic new film is a comment on the tragic brevity of human life, constructed largely of wordless scenes of plaintive, sorrowful observation. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a couple sharing an idyllic life until one chilly, fog-filled morning all is torn asunder: he’s in a car crash with their neighbour, just outside their house. Lying on a hospital bed after she says her final goodbyes, he suddenly sits upright. After opting not to go into the light (of heaven?), he’s damned to endure life without her and—worse—watch as she continues without him. In fact, he’s stuck haunting their house (as is the neighbour in hers), with some kind of Nietzschean eternal repetition compelling him to witness centuries of rebirth and change in the same spot. Near film’s end, in a flashback to their time together, she asks “Why do you like this house so much?” His response? “History.”

As is the case in most movies about the afterlife, Affleck’s ghost can only communicate by moving objects; he can’t speak directly to her. Nor can he talk to the Spanish-speaking family that moves in after she leaves. He can talk to the neighbour-ghost though: their communiqués with one another are halted (and sometimes incomplete) phrases in the mode of Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House, the opening sentence of which forms the film’s epigraph. The family’s Spanish dialogue isn’t subtitled—but, hilariously, the ghost-talk is.

The film’s centrepiece is a Linklater-esque rant at a party (delivered by Will Oldham [a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Billy], superbly dishevelled as ever) about the enduring permanence of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony and the inevitable heat-death of the universe. He’s credited, wonderfully, as “Prognosticator.”

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The film is shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with rounded corners. For a start, this imparts a warm analogue look reminiscent of dusty 35mm slides—but, more importantly for this film, it is a knowing wink to the silent era. It’s important to remember that the cinema, save for its very early days, was never truly silent: music consistently accompanied the picture. Lowery’s reliance on score (and on one heart-breaking song in particular) to manoeuvre the audience through the film’s eon-spanning emotional landscape indicates that perhaps little would have been lost were the characters to have been rendered mute, their words instead splashed across intertitles. This is not to say that dialogue is wholly immaterial to the story, but that the primary source of new plot cues is not words, but music.

The ethereal score is by Lowery’s regular composer Daniel Hart, whose other work includes the films Tumbledown and Comet, and the podcast S-Town. For A Ghost Story, he channels the avant-gardists Górecki and Lygeti, and—as many contemporary film composers seem impelled to do—he incorporates figures influenced by the minimalist Philip Glass. Quivering strings are pushed into the background as violins climb and descend in a minor key; elsewhere, Silvestri/Williams-style piano curlicues compete with billowing cellos and choral chants, like something out of Poltergeist or Close Encounters (both of which films Lowery readily admits as influences), before giving way to a sweet sombreness.

From Terrence Malick (who produced his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), Lowery borrows a fascination with the interplay of dancing shadows and early-evening light on a bare wall; and from Spielberg, a child-like sense of wonder when gazing at the night sky. The film is by turns profoundly moving, frightening, and—yes—beautifully haunting.

A Ghost Story screens in the New Zealand International Film Festival.

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