Grief and Cosmic Insignificance in ‘A Ghost Story’


Homes, literal and figurative, cling to our lives long after we’ve moved on. Spare memories are whispered against chipped paint, smudged across panes of glass. At one point in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, M (Rooney Mara) describes pushing folded letters into the fissures that lick across walls and the cracks between floorboards so that pieces of her remain, waiting, in every home that she abandons — as if by leaving her words behind, she can avoid being swallowed whole by the inevitable creeping of time, the vastness of our irrelevance. 

C (Casey Affleck) has a quiet off-screen death: his body falls limply against the steering wheel of his car, with smoke curling from the engine. Standing over his corpse in the hospital morgue, M is sucked dry of the warmth that their relationship held. In those same bleached halls, C rejects whatever glowing afterlife lays beyond in favor of a contemplative existence in limbo — becoming something spectral, but not completely inhuman. He shuffles across the same old floorboards of their home and watches M unravel beneath the weight of her grief. Eventually, M moves on and fixes herself, and there is nothing but the sun swelling through the windows. Time’s linearity begins to fray in her absence, and C watches all of human history deconstruct itself from one singular spot. 

Depression is excruciatingly slow and completely boring; grief is even slower still. Both feel something like the sluggish peeling away of both flesh and comfort — ripped from your corporeal self, suspended in time itself. They feel exactly as hollow as M mournfully consuming a pie for six long minutes, slumped against the dishwasher, in a house that’s as empty as she is. I would imagine that being a ghost, ephemeral and untethered to time, feels strangely similar. Though M has a body, a solidified physical form, her suffering is not so different from C’s. The destitution that devours her in her grief mirrors that which consumes C as he drifts through time and space—desperate to remember her, desperate to feel something other than loss. Hers, though, represents a very real, touchable human pain, one that is possible to heal from. Because she is not untethered in time, M can move on, while C is stuck circling the drain on the metaphysical plane where time unwinds itself.

A film that lives in the space between atoms, A Ghost Story forces you to sit with your insignificance, your emptiness, and passivity. Having to confront the inevitable dissolution of all things into a great nothingness is a disconcerting exercise, and that we as individuals (and humans as a collective) are merely a blip in the fabric of time is both freeing and agonizing. The hurt of our grand, cosmic insignificance is only soothed by the marks we leave upon the places and people we attach ourselves to. Even those, however, are bound to fade in time, and constructing a lasting legacy is a near-impossible task. In a passing moment in the midst of a house party (while C floats unseen, on the fringes), a nameless character offers a pseudo-intellectual and self-important take on what legacy means. But while it isn’t exactly subtle, it captures our human need to endure beyond our physical lives.

Our desperation to be remembered after our deaths is painfully futile in such a massive universe, where nothing we do is of any real consequence. C haunts, flinging ceramic plates to the floor and tearing things from the walls, because he cannot stand his own invisibility — he cannot stand to not be missed. It is, most simply, a kind of oppressive loneliness. This is only heightened by his inability to communicate: Being transformed into this shadow of his former self has stripped him of his ability to speak and interact, isolating him even further. 

Then, we watch as C is shoved backward and forwards through time, watching his own life pass by. He’s forced to sit passively and watch his relationship with his wife unfold. Forced to watch the world rumble and shift and industrialize. He watches as the house next door gets demolished, collapsing in on itself. The briefness (or, really, the insignificance) of his time spent in that house as a living, breathing person becomes painfully evident. 

A Ghost Story uses this non-linearity of time to emphasize our inevitable galaxy-sized disintegration. C is forced to watch the world forget him, something we would all experience should we become specters after death, untethered, and timeless. It is astonishingly suffocating to face just how little anything in our material or emotional lives matter — mourning something that has yet to be lost.

Jenna Kalishman

BA in English and film studies. Early English literature as well as fantasy and sci-fi fanatic. Bylines include Lithium Magazine, Hey Alma, and Flip Screened. @jenkalish on socials.

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