'A Ghost Story' Is a Hauntingly Beautiful Examination of Loss

Considering its title and classic imagery of a sheet with two eyeholes cut out, A Ghost Story could appear, on the surface, to be a conventional horror film. Rather, writer/director David Lowery uses the familiar imagery and straightforward title to create a gorgeous exploration of life, loss, and grief.

A young couple, who are only identified in the credits by "C" and "M" (played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, respectively), are both in love while also struggling to determine what sort of tension has been laying dormant in their relationship.

Tragically, the two never get to confront the negativity that has permeated their lives, as C dies suddenly in a car accident in front of their home. After M identifies the body, she places the sheet over her deceased partner and heads home, only for the audience to witness the sheet rise from the gurney and begin his journey to the place in which he lived.

Upon his arrival, C is relegated to merely witnessing his former love struggle to cope with her newfound emptiness, trying, but failing, to reach out from his realm in hopes of comforting her. C's existence extends much further than his connection to M, as we see the experiences he has as a mere witness to the human condition, traveling to different points in time as he struggles to find the elusive "peace" we all seek after someone departs our lives.

Much like the stories we've seen unfold in Ghost or Beetlejuice, A Ghost Story might immediately draw comparisons to those stories of the dead refusing to say goodbye to the world of the living, but where those films' narratives emphasize that its protagonists have a story to be "solved," this film lingers on the inherent mystery of losing a loved one. Rather than try to explain to the audience the meaning of life or the answers to coping with loss, the film forces you to sit with that loss as it manifests itself in a variety of ways.

The first collaboration between Lowery, Affleck, and Mara, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, allowed the actors the showcase a lovelorn couple separated by incarceration. A Ghost Story has similar themes of separation, but cranked to a much more exaggerated and drastic degree. Mara gives a subtle yet powerful performance full of nuance, capturing the pain, confusion, and hopelessness of loss exquisitely. Affleck is competent in the scenes he's in, but spending most of his time under a sheet, it's tough to convey much more than merely existing.

The real star of the film is Lowery's direction, cinematography, and sound design. The image of a ghost wearing a white sheet is inherently goofy, but the film's tone makes the image work to dramatic effect. Thanks to cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, the Texas-based film has a hazy feel over many scenes, making viewers feel as though they're in a dream. Other scenes, however, are vibrant and crisp to mirror the joy and jubilation of its characters, while a ghost merely looms in the background, clearly envious of the world of the living.

A scene in which Mara tries to fall asleep in an empty bed ends up being one of the most defining moments of the film, expressing that, rather than your life merely no longer containing that person who used to exist, you perceive their loss as a hole in the shape of that person for the rest of your life. It's not that they never existed, it's that you see the void they've left and emptiness they've caused every time you look at a room in which they used to exist.

Mara's character also plays a pivotal role in a running theme, as she described to C how she used to leave notes in nooks and crannies of every house she lived, knowing that someday someone might find that note. Similarly, no matter what we do with our time on earth, the idea of existing past your death doesn't necessarily mean doing something that changes the world, but rather, it's the awareness that the smallest of actions could have an impact on anyone's life in the future, much like her character never knows if someone will find a note, but finds peace in knowing the message to the future was at least passed along.

For those viewers looking for a linear narrative or an answer to the film's many questions about existence, you'll find yourself disappointed with A Ghost Story's journey, but audiences willing to use the film as an inspiration to confront their beliefs about what happens to us when we die or have lost someone close to them for any reason will find the experience of the film therapeutic.


A Ghost Story is in theaters now. It is 92 minutes long and is Rated R for brief language and a disturbing image.

Rating: 4 Out of 5 Stars

Photo Credit: IMDB