a ghost story: contemplative film exploring death both affecting and beautiful

By Karen Gordon

The idea of putting an actor in a white bed sheet with two eye holes cut out as a means of exploring grief and more cosmic issues isn’t the safest way to go if your plan is to make a resonant film.

And yet, with A Ghost Story, writer/director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) has used that silly Hallowe’en costume to make a quiet little movie that is thoughtful and poignant.

Casey Affleck (Manchester By The Sea) and Rooney Mara (Carol) play C and M, respectively, a couple living in a ranch house in suburban Texas, and facing a transition in their relationship. There’s tension. He wants to stay put and make music. She wants to move; she wants something different.

But nothing is ever resolved. Within the first 10 minutes of the film C is killed in a car accident.  M identifies his body in the morgue, the sheet is pulled over his head.  As M leaves, C — now covered in that before-mentioned sheet with two eye holes — gets up, rejects the offer of a white light, and follows her home.

C can’t do much but stand silently draped in his sheet watching as M quietly deals with her grief, moves on with her life, and out of their house. Before she leaves for the last time, she writes something on a little piece of paper and slips it into a crack between the wall and the door frame. C doesn’t follow her.  He stays with the house and time passes.

There is a lot of silence in A Ghost Story. People pass through the house.  We needle drop on casual moments in their lives, and get a sense of time moving along. 

Lowery lets some of his camera shots go for a longer time than normal, sometimes the length of a mournful song, giving the movie a drifty or almost meditative feel, reminiscent of work by Terrence Malick, (The Tree of Life) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Cemetary of Splendor).

As quiet as the movie is there are moments of emotion, and others verging on humour. A man at a party (Will Oldham) pontificates on the meaning of life.  C, in the now-empty house, looks out the window and across at the next house and sees another ghost, wearing a flowered sheet who waves back, and the two communicate telepathically.

It’s a wonky rhythm with some strange turns, but through it all Lowery never loses focus. The movie feels quiet, reflective and sombre. The scenes with C and M take up a relatively short bit of time at the top of the film and yet, he brings us in close to them, creating a sense of intimacy, so that their relationship haunts the rest of the film. And even covered head-to-toe in this white sheet with the eyeholes, we somehow begin to feel some of what the ghostly C is feeling.

A Ghost Story takes on a subject that western culture isn’t typically comfortable talking about: death. Also, grief and the endless march of time. I suspect it will affect each person who sees it slightly differently. But it’s also important to note that this movie is not all about death.

It asks questions about what holds us to a place, a relationship, a belief. What we accept or long for. A Ghost Story doesn’t provide answers but its simplicity and dignity is affecting and quite beautiful.

Ghost Story. Directed by David Lowery. Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Opens July 21 in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox and Varsity Cinemas, and in Vancouver at International Village. Opens July 28 in Halifax, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Victoria; August 4 in Montreal; and other cities throughout the summer.


Karen Gordon is a freelance writer/broadcaster who reviews movies Fridays on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. She’s covered him, music and popular culture for 20 years in radio, TV and print. She's also a creative producer, series story editor and writer for documentary/lifestyle TV and is the co-writer of two award-winning cookbooks, David Rocco’s Dolce Vita and Made in Italy. Karen still gets a thrill when the lights go down and the movie begins.