Analysis – A Ghost Story is a part-nihilistic and part-optimistic take on the power of memory

Beguiling drama A Ghost Story, starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from Monday. Here, I delve into the complex themes behind this bizarre film. There are spoilers ahead.

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, under a sheet, in A Ghost Story
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, under a sheet, in A Ghost Story

David Lowery‘s intriguing existential fable A Ghost Story was one of the most interesting movies of last year. It’s a film that sees Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck as an unnamed couple, in the midst of moving house. Affleck’s character dies in a car accident just yards from his driveway, only to rise from the dead underneath a bed sheet with convenient eye holes. He follows Mara’s character back home and watches as she grieves, moves on with a new partner and leaves the house forever.

It’s from here that Lowery begins to make some very unconventional decisions. Affleck’s sheet remains in the house after Mara leave, hounding the next occupants into moving out and watching as a pretentious partygoer delivers a nihilistic speech about the inevitability of death. He then sees the house demolished and replaced by a high rise office block at the heart of a futurescape seemingly ripped directly from the world of Blade Runner 2049. Time subsequently resets itself and Affleck relives his relationship with Mara.

A Ghost Story has an unusual and compelling story, told in idiosyncratic fashion by Lowery. Few directors would have the courage to devote more than five minutes of their film to Rooney Mara sat on the floor in silence eating a pie. But what does it all mean?


The resonance of memory

It’s tempting to see the ‘ghost’ of Affleck as a physical manifestation of Mara’s grief. However, this story is almost certainly more complex than that. The ghost in fact appears to be a stubborn remnant of Affleck himself, playing out his own grief by observing Mara’s character. Mara’s memory of Affleck appears to give the ghost extra power and it’s in these moments that he comes closest to being able to reach out and touch her, whether she’s cuddled up in bed as if with him or lying on the floor listening to one of his songs.



The memory of Affleck’s character also appears to be behind the ghost’s apparent condemnation to a single location. Early in A Ghost Story, it is established that Mara’s character forms intense connections with the places where she lives, leaving notes behind so that “there’d be a piece of me there waiting” if she ever returns to the location. When Mara eventually leaves the home she shared with Affleck, she leaves a note behind in the woodwork and it appears to be this that roots the ghost in place. It’s significant that the ghost disappears, as if at peace, when he is finally able to retrieve the note.

This notion of memory finds its more unsettling edge in the form of another ghost, visible to Affleck from the window, who appears to be in a similar purgatory at a different house. When Affleck’s ghost asks what the other sheet-wearer is doing, they reply they are “waiting for someone”, but can’t remember who they are. This raises the disquieting possibility that Affleck has met a lost soul who has possibly lived through multiple cycles of the bizarre temporal structure in which the ghosts exist and yet not found the same peace as Affleck. It’s only when that ghost loses faith that they finally disappear, in a saddening depiction of those who are not remembered in death.


A depressing streak

This more nihilistic side to A Ghost Story finds its shining moment in the monologue delivered by Will Oldham‘s douchebag house party guest. It’s by far the most dialogue-heavy segment in the entire film, which means it sticks in the mind as the credits roll. Memory is a key theme in his speech as well, but he strikes a pessimistic note, pontificating about how even the achievements of Beethoven and his creative equals will be wiped out when the Earth is melted by the sun and, even if the human race endures on another planet, the universe will eventually collapse in on it itself.

If Lowery intends this scene to be a skewering of the college dorm psychology the character is espousing, it works perfectly. Oldham’s character delivers his self-satisfied, pretentious monologue while unknowingly being observed by the ghost, who is an embodiment of exactly the phenomenon the pontificator believes to be insignificant.

In the world of A Ghost Story, the spectral presence at its heart is a clear depiction of how echoes of ourselves can reverberate throughout time. Lowery’s vision might initially seem to be a sad one, but the ultimate message is one of positivity where, in death, our essence stretches infinitely across temporal boundaries – at least while there are those who remember us.

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck cuddle up in A Ghost Story
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck cuddle up in A Ghost Story

Do you agree with my take on A Ghost Story? What are your thoughts on the film? Let me know in the comments section.

A Ghost Story is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from Monday, courtesy of Lionsgate.

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