(Warning: This article contains plot spoilers)
We’re all going to die, and one day long into the future, every trace and memory of our existence will be lost forever.
This inevitable (and rather depressing) truth is one of the key themes at the heart of David Lowery’s film, which follows a recently deceased man – simply called ‘C’ – as he comes to terms with the loss of his own existence in the life, loving relationship and home he once inhabited.
Shrouded in the sheet that covered his dead body in the morgue, C silently drifts through his old house while the relentless passage of time gradually cuts deep furrows of sadness into his sheet’s lifeless black eyes. He watches as his wife grieves, is consoled and eventually moves out of the house, taking with her all of the possessions that carried with them memories and traces of their life together.
Two things remain, however: the upright piano that came with the house when they bought it and a hidden note that ‘M’, our ghost’s wife, had tucked into a door frame and painted over before moving out.
At the start of the film, M tells C that hiding small notes was a way to remember things and to leave a piece of herself in places that she may return to later in life.
C laughs away what to him seems to be a silly, childish act, especially when he learns that M has never once revisited the places where these notes are kept.
The note that hides in the doorframe – which neither us nor our ghost know the contents of – becomes an obsession for C, as he meekly scratches at it for what could be ten years or fifty, as new tenants move in and out and the house slowly decays around him.
M’s hidden note brings to mind the written prayers left in cracks by visitors to the Western Wall in Jerusalem or the ‘love locks’ attached to various bridges around the world – both physical and very personal testaments that are meant to stay where they are left, while those that leave them move through life. They are physical markers unlike the traces left by our social media ‘feed’, which are as tangible as vapour trails or a single breath in the cold night air.
Whatever is written in M’s note is – for her – worth remembering and returning to some day. C’s desperation to find out what it says echoes our own desire to know the answer. We share in his torment of an immortal purgatory, slowly watching the life he knew slip away as an unfamiliar world is built around him.
In one scene, we see another ghost appear at the next door’s window, who also seems lost in this world of shadows. When she says she is waiting for someone, C asks her “who?”, to which she responds, “I can’t remember”. Later, as bulldozers raise both houses to the ground, next door’s ghost simply utters the words “I guess they’re not coming back” before the sheet falls lifelessly to the ground.
M’s note is therefore an anchor in time and C’s connection not just to the past but to the love they shared. Earlier in the film, before he becomes a ghost, we notice that C is a poor listener, selfishly wrapped up in his own thoughts at the expense of M’s feelings. M is ready to move out of the house but C isn’t – he likes the house because it has history. M wants to move out because – yes, you guessed it – the house is haunted. Although the film uses a now-familiar time-twist narrative that, when examined in any real depth, becomes pretty tenuous, the use of it is here is wholly justifiable and highly effective. An endless loop of melancholia can only be broken by C’s realisation that he must move on both physically and spiritually.
A Ghost Story is a poetic elegy about letting go of a physical place and realising that C’s love for M is the only thing that will free him from a tormented earthbound existence. Perhaps the note is teaching us about the importance of listening more intently, to be more present and ‘in the moment’ with our loved ones. Either way it’s a lesson to him, and a reminder to us, that while our bodies may return to the dust and the memory of our existence may fade from memory, it’s love’s power to transcend time that will be our lasting legacy.