This American drama is a haunting tale of grief and loss. It tells the story of a husband who returns as a ghost to the house he shared with his wife while he was alive.
A struggling musician-songwriter, named C (Casey Affleck), is killed tragically in a car accident in front of his house, and he awakens in a morgue covered in a white sheet that drapes his body. He rises under the sheet which has two holes for him to see through. He leaves the hospital and returns to his house, to follow his grieving wife, M (Rooney Mara).
As a ghost, Affleck never speaks to his wife. He returns like a sentinel to keep watch over her and the house he loved so much. He longs to reconnect with M and console her in her grief, but he can’t. The ghost of C stays shrouded, but it can walk, move, and see. All it can do is to watch over its keep, unable to offer comfort, or ever to communicate. As time goes by, the ghost is forced to watch as the life C knew with M slowly slips away. It is angered when M comes home with someone else and he makes its presence felt in a ghost-like way: lights flicker, and books suddenly fly off the shelf of the bookcase to indicate unrest. The effect is not scary, but incredibly sad.
The film is a poetic testimony to the endurance of romantic longing, of the impact of life after death, and of the enormous significance placed on the spaces we choose to call our own. The ghost is obviously frustrated to see that the life C once led, and the house in which he led it, are changing.
The ordinariness of the image of the white-sheeted ghost is remarkable. The film often positions the ghost as a presence standing off to the side, standing still or moving silently in its surrounds. The image is simple and haunting, and the film plays with the surreal in a lyrical way. The movie’s sense of time grows looser as the ghost silently watches both the future and the past unfolding before it.
Music plays a special role in this film. The movie is almost wordless, and it includes a tender song written by C. The song is mournful and the ghost becomes more agitated as it grows in intensity. The music also gives warning of unusual activity that is about to occur, and the combination of imagery and sound in the film works very effectively. This is not a horror film in any way. Everything, including the film’s visual imagery, structured cinematography, and musical sound-track stresses the significance of human loss. The effect is reinforced by the film’s imagery being linked to sound, or its definite absence. When dialogue does becomes a focus – for instance, when there is a noisy party in the house – the solitude that usually accompanies the ghost’s presence is noticeably missed, but we know that the ghost is upset at the content of what has been said.
The film communicates little about what the characters think will happen as time goes by – in the future, as well as in the past – and what for them is the meaning of death. Events unfold slowly, almost like set pieces, and the film uses visual and auditory imagery starkly. It produces a very real sense of the haunting, though, and demonstrates a distinctive use of the cinema medium by David Lowery, the film’s Director and Writer.
Lowery directs the film as a melancholic meditation on the passing of time and the meaning of existence, with grief and loss as his main focal points. This is a film that takes chances. Its slow pace and sparseness of dialogue mean it won’t be to everybody’s liking, but in many ways the film offers a rich and rewarding cinema experience. This is a movie that invites personal, individual projections onto its surreality, but its grip on the impact of loss is always steady and penetrating.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting