Review: “A Ghost Story” Explores Time with a Shoestring Budget

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains,” Henry David Thoreau, via “Walden.” 

Times waits for no man, and in no way is this more evident than in David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story.” The film stars a young couple, played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, who live in a rural house in Dallas, Texas, though the specific setting and the names of our characters are unimportant. We see Affleck and Mara’s characters interact, and there is some real chemistry there, though as the film progresses, we learn that their relationship isn’t perfect, in fact there is a conflict in which Affleck’s character (credited as just “C”) wants the couple to continue living the house because he has become attached to it, a theme that will encompass the entirety of the movie. 

Very early on, Affleck’s character dies in a car accident, leaving Mara’s character (“M”) alone. For the rest of the movie, Affleck is a ghost, acting under a bedsheet with two holes cut for eyes, a cheap but refreshing measure that fits with the theme of isolation and being trapped that Lowery establishes throughout the film, which is shot on a 1:33: 1 format to help convey this. 1:33: 1, otherwise known as the Academy ratio, was the premier format for shooting film until 1953, when there was a push for film’s to go wider. What the Academy ratio forces filmmakers to do is to tighten up their shots by making every scene more intimate, but with this size, it also limits what they can do, meaning Academy can be seen as a much simpler format, but that’s part of the point with “A Ghost Story.” It’s an outwardly simple movie produced off of a miniscule $100,000 budget, most of which probably went into paying the actors, that finds complexity exploring its themes and ideas in a steady, crafted and mature manner. 

That is not to say that the movie is perfect, because it’s not. There is an infamous pie-eating scene that goes on for over 8 minutes (if you want, it’s on YouTube), though it does serve a purpose in the movie; When Affleck freshly resurrects as a newborn ghost, time goes by painfully slow and gradually fastens, as the film goes from showing us an 8 minute scene about a woman eating a pie to years and decades going by every time Affleck’s ghost enters a new room, or turns around. 

Spoilers beyond this point

Perhaps “A Ghost Story”’s biggest folly is being far too ambitious for its small budget. While the minimalistic aesthetic works, there are missing scenes, and how time slows down and speeds up seems to be at the digression of the plot. In one instance, we’ll skip decades only to slow down to focus on a conversation the film wants you to pay attention to during a party that will explain what the film will do next (a man rants on about how the universe will expand and come back together and cause another Big Bang, arguing that nothing will last, no matter what you do), which was immediately followed by the house the ghost is trapped in getting torn down, then replaced by a skyscraper, and then it fast forward to pioneer times. 

Before I get more into this, it is also worthy to note that the mechanics of what Affleck can and cannot do are never defined, which can throw some unnecessary confusion at audience members. In some instances, Affleck’s ghost can cause physical objects to fly across the room, yet he struggled to pull a piece of paper out of the wall that his wife left him, so much so that even though he continually picks at it every day, it takes him so long to even come close to getting it out that the house falls apart and is eventually demolished around him. Through interviews with the director, we know that Affleck is supposed to be bound to that one spot, but we see him freely move around the house, and it begs the question of when the house is torn down, what is defining his boundaries as to where he can and cannot go. This isn’t necessarily something that needed to be told to us, just a simple scene where Affleck attempts to go outside, but can’t would have sufficed. 

Then we get into the missing scenes that, because of the budget, the film could not show. Through context, Affleck waits so long to see what his wife wrote on that piece of paper in the wall, or perhaps for her ghost itself, that it is implied that he watched the earth and the universe crumble, only to be remade. The film ends on a remade Affleck and Mara entering the house for the first time, in which the Affleck ghost watches the events of the first twenty minutes of the film unfold, resulting in an exact copy of himself to be made, which brings more questions than it does answers. Through this, Lowery suggests that the universe is on an endless cycles of repetition; when it shrinks back down to the smallest particle it can, another big bang happens, making everything exactly the same as it was before (except for Affleck’s ghost, it would seem). It would also suggest that that did not happen before the first Affleck ghost, as that ghost was not accompanied by one prior to it, tearing a huge plothole in what otherwise was a solid film (i.e. the universe before the Big Bang before the first Affleck ghost was not an identical copy). 

Furthermore, we never see those scenes of Affleck’s ghost waiting through all that time, even if it would be exaggerated or using as minimal CGI as it could, which is a shame because those are important character defining moments. Affleck’s love for Mara eclipsed the lifetime of the universe itself, surviving past any concept of time our minds can understand, outliving mankind only to see them evolve again, from nothing. That’s a perspective we cannot even begin to comprehend, and the film does not try to tackle it; it skips over it. All we get is a scene of the Affleck ghost in a futuristic skyscraper, a wide shot of the perceived future (though it could have been a modern city), a scene of the stars in the sky moving, delineating that time has passed, and we cut to a scene of Affleck’s ghost watching some pioneers camp on the site of where his house would be built, hundreds of years in the future. It only makes what the film is trying to convey not as believable, but it feels like Affleck’s convictions are out of character, as he acts as if nothing had happened. Surely such an experience would change even a ghost. 

But overall, this is still a quality film, and it makes you think. It’s refreshing to see a minimalistic, thought provoking film amid the schlocky Hollywood blockbusters, and while I feel like there are huge flaws with this movie, it does tackle time in a matter no wide release film will dare to even try. If you have Amazon Prime, you can watch it for free. If you want to think, this is the movie for you.