On ‘A Ghost Story’: Grief, Meaning, and Gender

a-ghost-storyDavid Lowery’s latest film, A Ghost Story, presents itself as being many things. A glimpse of love and relationships. A reflection on loss and grief. A meditation on the march of time and the meaning of life. Perhaps in recognition of the enormousness and gravity of these topics, Lowery opts for a predominantly visual style of storytelling over one of dialogue, save for a few brief moments. This is underscored by the quasi-comical depiction of the lead character, the ghost, who appears as a wandering sheet with two eye-holes.

Despite this interesting premise, there isn’t much more to the movie that might give it substance. It’s tempting, it seems, for a lot of critics to chalk this up as a ‘success,’ contributing some vaguely ethereal or delicate quality to the film that suits its subject matter, rather than just being a consequence of lazy writing. There’s a suspicion that A Ghost Story wants to be cleverer than it actually is, which undermines some of its deliberate attempts to play coy or ironic. There is also a gender problem in it that I’ve yet to see addressed by any of the critics.

Spoilers ahead, so beware and turn back now if you’d prefer to watch the movie first. This post is the result of a lengthy discussion my partner and I had after seeing the movie.

The film begins on a couple moving into a house. The husband C, played by Casey Affleck, and the wife M, played by Rooney Mara, settle in and do some of the things any normal couple does. They love, they talk, they have tense moments, and so on. We get little fragments of their relationship before the husband unceremoniously dies in a car crash. Then we see the widow go and identify his body. After she leaves, the husband rises up in the hospital sheet and follows her home.

One of the first hints at the pretentious tone comes in a five-minute scene where C watches M eat an entire pie. Halfway into it, she sits on the kitchen floor and continues eating. Yes, this is supposed to represent grief, and yes, it’s moving for a little while, but then it starts to feel shoved down our faces with all the subtlety of a flashing neon sign that says, “Women tend to stress-eat when they’re upset.” Granted, Lowery lingers on so much throughout the movie that this drawn-out segment is easily overlooked. Still, one can’t help raising an eyebrow at this particular symbol of grief being used for the wife, when there is the much more ominous and looming symbol of her dead husband, wrapped in cloth, and often standing right beside her shoulder.

From there, we watch as C watches M get on with her life, eventually meeting someone new, and then moving out of the house. Before she leaves, M writes something on a slip of paper and inserts it into one of the cracks in a wall. As explained earlier in the film, this is something she would do to leave behind a little piece of herself when her family moved a lot during her childhood. Casey Affleck’s ghost tries to retrieve her note, but is repeatedly distracted.

At a couple moments, C goes to a window where he’s able to see into another window on the house next door. He notices there is another sheet-ghost in that house. The two of them communicate through subtitles, which is maybe one of the more creative aspects of the film in achieving its atmosphere of distance and isolation. The ghost next door has a pink floral design on its sheet to set it apart from C, presumably because it is female. Why we really needed to know the gender of this other ghost is never explained, though.

Once M is gone, a single mother and her children move into the house, but are quickly scared into leaving when the ghost throws a temper tantrum in the kitchen. He grabs and smashes dish after dish for no apparent reason other than the fact that these are strangers living in the house. Oddly, however, the ghost seems less bothered by the next residents that take up living there. A bunch of college students take over the home, and the ghost becomes witness to a booze-filled house party.

Hands down, this is the worst part of A Ghost Story. During it, we’re subjected to the pseudo-philosophical ramblings of a suspenders-wearing neckbeard (that’s no exaggeration, either) on life, death, and the meaning of existence. Michael Phillips, writing for the Chicago Tribune, calls this one of a “few things [that] don’t work, or work too hard at establishing something Lowery establishes elsewhere without words,” and this is absolutely true. Immediately after this scene, we are shown all that neckbeard pontificates about as the ghost continues living on through a radically changing world, where everything is fleeting and ultimate meaning is called into question.

But it’s not just that this moment in the film is unnecessary exposition. It’s when the ghost stops to listen. He kicked out the single mother with her kids, yet he doesn’t kick out any of the college students. In fact, the ghost does nothing to them at all, instead sitting back and letting the neckbeard get out his insufferable monologue, which is essentially some combination of ‘all art is impermanent’, ‘everything ends’, ‘nothing is really any different from fucking’, blah blah blah. There’s even a tiny nod to religion, as if to say that without God there’s no point to anything.

It’s also worth mentioning that the camera habitually alternates between the neckbeard and the female college students sitting around the table at this scene. Mr. Suspenders goes out of his way to state that “it’s just science” or that “it’s a fact”, and he makes his case for the pointlessness of existence in a manner that is both condescending and arrogant. This view could’ve been expressed perfectly fine without the condescension, arrogance, or heavy male ego, like Melanie Lynskey’s character Ruth talks about the futility of life and everything at the beginning of I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. Neckbeard is allowed to proceed practically uninterrupted and unchallenged through his speech, as he mansplains life, death, purpose, and the universe to those at the table and to those of us in the audience.

This is a problematic inclusion in a movie that allegedly eschews simplistic verbal answers to some of life’s big questions. It defeats the “talk is cheap” attitude and instead makes it seem, through the silence and quiet of most other scenes, as if the entire film is merely a vehicle for this little sermon. It underestimates the intelligence of the audience and, even if it’s meant to show the inadequacy of words at expressing big ideas, it’s a poorly-executed and superfluous way of getting that message across.

I won’t go too far into the details of the plot, partly because it barely has one to begin with. David Sims calls it “a depressing kind of voyeurism” in a review for The Atlantic. We watch the ghost commit suicide from a tall building, then get reborn a second time, before eventually winding up cycling past the years when C and M were together in the house. So we start to see the beginnings of an infinite regress of ghosts – an idea that I’m divided on being either ridiculous or intriguing. Eventually, C is able to pull the note from the wall and read it, at which point he vanishes, leaving his sheet behind.

Certainly, there are good ideas and good moments to A Ghost Story, but what some of its critics have celebrated as its “droll” and “mundane” depiction of death, for instance, seems mistaken with the fact that the film mostly just has droll and mundane ideas about death. The entire thing is about a man who can’t let go, who has an existential crisis that we come to find out in the end may not even be about love. He’s always been tied to the house, it’s suggested. And yet it’s reading the note from his wife that finally ‘releases’ him. There could’ve been something more beautiful in these sentiments if they had been handled better.

One thing that I’d have liked to see would’ve been more of a dive into how C spends the whole movie watching mournfully from the sidelines. M goes on with her life, but there is the hint that C is just as much of an inactive onlooker in death as he might have been in life. This is nearly set up from the opening scene where M busily goes about doing things around the house, dragging something out to the curb, whereas C sits around and plays music. In all the diverse array of subjects and issues the film tries to touch upon, opportunities like these have been lost, which is another sense in which the movie feels like it tries to be a Jack of all trades, and winds up mastering none. It wants to leave things open, which it does, but there is such a thing as being too open to interpretation.

When I first saw the trailer for this film, my impression was that it would be focusing on Rooney Mara’s struggle with grief and depression in the wake of her husband’s death. As it turns out, less than probably a third of the movie centers around that. The trouble with basing things around Casey Affleck’s character is that he’s not well developed as it is, and when replaced by a sheet with eye-holes, it becomes even harder to sympathize with him. Surely, this was a deliberate move, but it makes the lingering shots and silent sections of the film feel more tedious and uninteresting than emotional or provocative.

I want to finish with some further comments on the movie’s weird issue with gender. A Ghost Story gives us a lead character that is a disembodied male spirit. Throughout the movie, he depends on the emotional support of a woman, up to and including releasing him from his torment, yet he seems emotionally distant and unavailable. Even during the kissing scene at the start, it’s tough to tell if he’s motionless out of tiredness or if he’s just not the romantic type of guy. But especially after his death, what we have to follow along on the existential ride is a blank sheet that never speaks, never changes expression, and only demonstrates a clear sign of emotion in throwing a fit at the poor single mother and her kids. Later, the film goes so far as to show women and children that die right in front of C when he goes back in time.

Maybe this is all the director’s attempt to “leave love out of it,” as the neckbeard remarks during his rambling, to consider life and the universe apart from emotion. And maybe the note and C’s release at the end signify that love can’t be left out of things if we want to make any sense of our lives. But if so, then it’s still a terrible and bungling way for the film to go about reaching that point. This is why the movie feels like a vehicle for that sophomoric, drunken nihilistic mansplaining sermon. The women (and children) in it are treated like inconveniences, except to the extent that they do the work of providing emotional support to the male main character.

Several critics have praised A Ghost Story for upending haunted house tropes, but to me this seems like weak praise. The film is barely about a haunted house, it leaves some tropes intact, and those it does upend are likely only upended because the story isn’t sure what it really wants to be. There’s a haze to this movie that I think makes it prime material for different people to read into it whatever they want, but haze does not a good movie make. This one was a disappointment for the potential it had and wasted.

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