Bright Lights Film Journal

Lonely, but Not Alone: Death as a Collective Experience in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story

Regardless of whether it is worth doing or not, people will continue to rely on memory as a way to create legacy and heritage. People will always leave things behind, and though death is ambiguous and terrifying in Lowery’s film, it is not necessarily meaningless. In A Ghost Story, time is limitless, expansive, and moves beyond our mortal comprehension and corporeal sensibilities.

* * *

Western philosophy has traditionally strongly emphasized individualism over collective experiences, and the struggles of the individual are often at the centre of western narratives in film, literature, and art. So it’s intriguing that the 2017 film A Ghost Story, written and directed by David Lowery, departs from this focus on the individual and moves toward a far more universalising representation of death, especially given that the basic premise of the film surrounds a specific couple and their story. Upon reading the synopsis of the film – that a husband dies prematurely in a car crash, assumes the form of a ghost, and returns to the home he shared with his wife, where he is forced to watch her cope with the bereavement – one would be forgiven for thinking that this is a film about one woman’s loss and about the pain of one man in watching his love move on without him from the other side. However, A Ghost Story pushes far beyond this narrative in order to create a haunting that may be localised to one place, but is totalising in its resonance across time and for the different people that live in those times.

The ghost (played by Casey Affleck) is depicted in the tradition of a crude Halloween costume: he is covered head to toe in a white sheet with two black holes for eyes. Once his character has died, he loses all physical individuality and becomes an anonymous spectre, unrecognisable as the man he once was. He becomes a symbol, literally a blank slate that allows viewers to project their own anxieties about grief and death onto the canvas. There is another ghost featured in this film, similarly shrouded in a bedsheet, who is occupying the house next door. The two spectres communicate silently in subtitles on the screen, and the nature of their exchange is left deliberately vague and ambiguous; we are told that the other ghost is “waiting for someone,” but does not remember who. Later in the film, in a particularly poignant moment, when an immeasurable period of time has passed, all inhabitants are long gone, and the houses are finally demolished, the two ghosts are left standing amongst the ruins, looking at one another. “I don’t think they’re coming,” the second ghost finally concedes, defeated after presumably endless years of agonising waiting. In an instant the sheet deflates, drops to the ground, and the ghost beneath seems to vanish. Whether this means that the ghost has let go of whatever was keeping it on earth, whether its consciousness has moved on to another plane of existence, or whether it has now ceased to exist altogether is unknown. There is no backstory provided for this second ghost, and in fact no specifics whatsoever given as to its identity. We do not know its gender or race. We do not know who or what it may have left behind. What we do know is that suffering in death is presented here as an inescapable and universalising experience. Affleck’s ghost may be lonely, but he is not alone.

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck

The language of death, too, is universal, as shown literally in the inclusion of a Spanish-speaking family that inhabit the house, where no subtitles are used by way of explanation. When the ghost takes on the mannerisms of a poltergeist, smashing glassware, plates, and cutlery in a fit of rage and pain, the shocked and confused family retreat into a corner, and no dialogue is needed to communicate their fear. They experience this haunting just as the viewer does. As the ghost traverses time, he is also privy to an episode in the past when the land was occupied by a pioneer-era family. Superficially, the families that we see occupy this space throughout the ages have nothing in common. However, it is soon proven that they share their humanity in death: though the conflict is not shown (just as the car crash is not shown when Affleck’s character dies), the irrevocable aftermath is, and the pioneer-era family’s corpses are strewn on the grass impaled with arrows. As the ghost watches their bodies decompose over a staggered time lapse, the viewer is reminded of how in spite of the ways that the space evolves, the promise of death has always been constant and unrelenting at any time in human history.

When the ghost’s wife moves away, there is no narrative follow-up on what happens to her, just as there would not be in real life. When someone leaves your life, or as in the case of A Ghost Story, when you leave theirs, part of the grief that can be so engulfing is the uncertainty about what happens next. As Peter Bradshaw observed in his review of the film in The Guardian, there is no reconciliation or consolation across dimensions here as there is in the famous 1990 film Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. However, in spite of the melancholy tone of A Ghost Story, there is still comfort to be taken in the idea of death as a collective experience. One of the pioneer children, a little girl, writes a note and hides it under a rock, echoing – and technically foreshadowing – the actions of Affleck’s wife, who also writes a note and hides it in the wall before she packs up and leaves the house she once shared with her husband. These notes serve as an example of the pieces and fragments people leave behind them. The film interrogates the worth that these things actually have, and sometimes cruelly, as with the inclusion of a tenant who rants that the concept of legacy is meaningless, because the planet will die out eventually and mankind with it. Nonetheless, it is the closure offered to the ghost in his ability to finally access and read the note left by his wife that allows for his own sheet to drop and his sad tale to finally end.

Regardless of whether it is worth doing or not, people will continue to rely on memory as a way to create legacy and heritage. People will always leave things behind, and though death is ambiguous and terrifying in Lowery’s film, it is not necessarily meaningless. In A Ghost Story, time is limitless, expansive, and moves beyond our mortal comprehension and corporeal sensibilities. It is intimidating and redefines our understanding of the individual, favouring a somewhat cosmic sense that death is outside of our control and outside of our own personal ideologies and narratives. This does not make the individual irrelevant; to the contrary, the depiction of the ghost’s wife in her immediate response to her husband’s death and her outpouring of grief is far from insignificant: grief takes on many different but equally valid forms that are all worthy of representation. Yet the film’s meditation on time should still put the individual into perspective, in a way that is sorely needed in such politically polarising and divisive times. Death happens to us all, and embracing that knowledge is key to embracing our common humanity. Once we recognise the totalising inevitability of death, we can concentrate on harnessing our collective power to alleviate suffering and make life easier for one another, whilst we are still here.

 * * *

Images courtesy of A24.