An artist friend of mine once told me about a particular concept in comic book artistry, in which the central character of a comic is drawn blank, or at least lacking firmly discerning characteristics. The idea is that the practice allows the reader to project themselves onto the character more easily than if the character had a definitive visual direction. David Lowery‘s A Ghost Storyperhaps inadvertently, has employed a similar tactic, except that it is a film, so instead of a blankly drawn character, there is a character covered head to toe with a white sheet.

That character is simply known as C and he is played by Casey Affleck. At the beginning of the film, there is no white sheet. C is a struggling musician, living with his wife, M (Rooney Mara). And then he is killed in a car accident. In the morgue, C awakens as a ghost.

a ghost story
Casey felt conflicted about being cast as Robin.

C isn’t a ghost like Patrick Swayze’s Sam Wheat in Ghost or Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. C’s ghost is covered in a white sheet, with only two black holes for eyes, like a ghost costume that a kid might make. It ought to look ridiculous in the context of the Lowery’s meditative film, but it doesn’t, and I was reminded of the way in which Lenny Abrahamson somehow made a giant paper mâché head on top of Michael Fassbender look correct in Frank.

C returns to his wife, to watch her grieve and to caress her as she sleeps and to see her leave for work every morning, because who else would you want to be with after you become a ghost than the person you love the most? But the sheet removes everything about C that made up his personality and his image as a living man. He isn’t like Sam Wheat or Ebenezer Scrooge in that he is an observer in the aftermath of his death but not a participant or a commentator.

As time goes by, we begin to forget what C the man looked like, as does sometimes happen with lost loved ones. Their faces become more difficult to conjure in our mind’s eye. The film is about the process of letting go. It is about our relationships with someone when they are dead compared to our relationship with them when they are alive. It’s also about their relationship with us when they are dead compared to when they are alive. Returning to that comic book idea of projecting ourselves onto this character, the white sheet is crucial, for it allows us to project our own experiences of grief onto the ghost of C.

The ghost of C will remain M’s husband forever, but M has a life ahead of her to lead, and then life goes on beyond that too. And as time continues, so does C’s ghost. At one point, C encounters another ghost in a neighbouring house. “I’m waiting for someone,” the ghost says, wordlessly. “Who?” C asks. “I don’t remember.” Time heals all wounds, even the ones we may prefer to keep open.

a ghost story
With every sequel, the budget to Paranormal Activity dropped considerably.

And then the film opens up into something larger and we begin to understand that there’s more on Lowery’s mind than grief. To divulge too much would be to spoil the film. I admired the film greatly when I left the cinema and the intervening hours have been kind to it in my mind. The film is called A Ghost Story and it is exactly that. Not a story with a ghost in it, but the story of a ghost. It is the story of C’s ghost, but eliminating Affleck’s visual presence from the film allows us to see our own relationships with the world and the ones we love in C’s story. And so, the film is the story of any ghost.

Few films that pursue truth regarding life have much to say. Fewer still have the insight to understand that those are the sorts of truths that can’t be solidified, they must be felt more than they can be grasped. A Ghost Story is penetrating, in a very impressive way. I believe it is almost impossible to be bang on the money in a discussion on existence. A Ghost Story comes pretty close.

9 / 10