Movie A Ghost Story Discussed and Explained
A Ghost Story is a low key intrigue driven movie about a couple encountering a traumatic encounter. Might be too slow for you, but it really is worth the effort.
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Movie A Ghost Story Discussed and Explained

I’m going to start with, “A Ghost Story Isn’t For Everyone.” But I’m betting it’ll almost definitely work for you. Most people that hang out here at THinc. are into movies that are a little more difficult to understand and take some unpacking in order to make heads or tails out of them. And A Ghost Story is DEFINITELY one of those movies. Anyway, it has my endorsement that it will be worth your time if those are the sorts of movies you are into. But yeah, it can be incredibly slow, and extraordinarily thoughtful in its cadence.

So, for those of you who haven’t seen it, A Ghost Story tells the story of two people. One of them die (this isn’t a spoiler, this is the POINT) and the rest of the movie is the interactions between the survivor and the ghost that remains. It is a measured movie that rewards the thoughtful among us. This isn’t a Bruce Willis Die Hard. That is for sure. But if you have a movie diet that requires pensiveness, this will fill your quota for a month. But it’s worth while pensiveness. (Is there another kind?) Entre-trailer:

And really all I want to know about this movie? How’d they make the eyes black like that? Heheh. So yeah, go see it if you haven’t already. And now to the spoilers. Ok? Everyone leave that hasn’t seen this movie already. Come back. Join in. Simple enough.


Ghost Story Overview

This really is the simplest of all stories… until, it isn’t. But even that left hook is manageable. But here it is in a nutshell, Casey Affleck – or M in the credits, and Rooney Mara – or C in the credits, have this quiet and intriguing relationship together. They seem betwixt and between. C wants to move, and M definitely does not. C tries to talk about it and M really won’t have any part of it.

And as these conversations are happening we see spectral lights and unaccounted for lens flares. I immediately jumped back to Personal Shopper and the ghosts we saw in that movie and assumed that even before his death we had a ghost already there with them. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Possibly the most interesting, and most intriguing piece of dialogue in the movie is C’s discussion of her habit of leaving notes in homes that she was moving away from. And it is so important, I thought I’d just quote it directly here for reference:

C – “When I was little, we would move all the time, I would write these notes, and fold them up really small and I would hide them.”

M – “What’d they say?”

C – “They were things I just wanted to remember so that if I ever wanted to go back there would be a piece of me there waiting.”

We’ll refer back to this a little later as well. But for now, we know that C leaves important notes behind when she moves on. Oh, and they are significant. Really really important.

A Ghost Story How Did M Die?

As the movie moves forward we are soon presented with a fairly gnarly car crash just outside of the house. And cut to the hospital morgue where we see C standing over M. No tears. But she is obviously shattered. Obviously M died in the car accident… but the only way that I can figure out how it happened is if he backed out of his driveway and was hammered by a speeding car that didn’t see him coming. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this movie is as much about this house as it is about C & M, and dropping to totaled cars just outside the house is brilliant. But in my neighborhood anyway, it’d be difficult to die pulling out of my drive way. Just saying. So yeah, the only way that I can think that he died right outside his driveway, was by getting hit by some oncoming car.

A Ghost Story – Eternity Bypassed

After an interminable shot of C and M in the hospital morgue, M gets up. And it was just such a gloriously beautiful shot from beginning to end. I even went back later and checked to see how C had placed the sheet so that it would fold so perfectly. I was, in a word, intrigued. Anyway, as M is walking down the hallway, a door opens up. An opportunity to punt on this thing called earth. But M doesn’t take it. Which, I might add, makes sense, seeing what we know about M. He’s a home body. A musician. He doesn’t want to give up on the house. He wants to stay close. So yeah, M isn’t going to take the bright glowing door. No. Not our M. Instead he heads back to C and their home.

A Ghost Story – A Sense of Loss 

(Can I just say that I literally, just minutes ago made myself, a much too big Mojito… with wayyy too much rum? Right, so this Ghost Story retelling might just get a little bit woo. Whatever that means.) Now that M is up and mobile this picture of the dead is just such a perfect picture. A sheet, a foreboding, standing in the corner as you gorge yourself on an entire pie. Which, I saw this fantastic quote somewhere, with Casey talking about Rooney and this scene that I just have to share:

There was quite a bit of build up to that. What kind of pie is it going to be? Where is the pie coming from? Who is making the pie? Rooney had strangely never eaten a pie which is the weirdest thing. There are lots of things I haven’t eaten, but you’d think a pie is something you’d have come across at some point.

Which, while the movie was super slow and introspective, this was my favorite part of the movie… just this perspective of the dead just longing and hankering for reconnecting with their inconsolable loved ones. I don’t want to jump to the end of my review, but I might as well spill the beans at some point. Personally, the really gorgeous aspect of this film was just how perfectly it described the loss of a loved one. The entirety of the movie is 100% lacking other people and other connections. And in death, even though people might be around, it is so difficult to focus on them, or to even share why it is it hurts so much. Right? And you can see this in C and M.

Actually, I see the Ghost as a manifestation of C’s grief more than a literal character in the film. The boulder that is getting dragged around behind her more than anything else. Right? I mean, sure, he’s there. But it seems to me that the movie comes from her perspective. A retelling of the horror that she is going through, if that makes sense at all.

Eventually C brings someone home and M knocks books on the floor to show his outrage. But then we get this fantastic music interlude where M was sharing a song with C. I can relate to this interaction more than I would care to admit. But I’ll just leave it at that.

A Ghost Story – Life, Universe and Everything

This brings us to this fantastic party wherein we get a soliloquy from a bald guy waxing eloquent. Everyone is holding to his every word. “What if there was no God and we find out that all of Beethoven’s work was for nothing? Maybe it was just so that others would remember him? To endure? You write a book, but the pages will burn.” It’s an interesting dilemma. Why are we here? Maybe we are here to cast as far a ripple as possible?

But What About the Note?

We realize very quickly on, that C’s note will be the central device (McGuffin if you will) for the entirety of the movie. What did she write? Why did she leave it there painted into the doorframe? And there is M, after having lived through other occupancies of the house, with the note almost out, only to have it wrecked by a backhoe. Hrm. Disappointing! How are we going to find out what the note says!?!?

Well, on goes the movie into the future, where the house gets rebuilt as an office building and a parking garage. Well, M quickly sickens of this, and takes a header off the office building “killing himself” again. He apparently did that in order to flash backwards in time to the original homesteaders of the area. What?! Where is this movie going? But soon enough we are back to M and C… and now M-the-ghost is watching M-the-man interact with C. Soon enough M is dead again, and now there are two of him ghosting throughout the house. (Which, completely explains the sounds they were hearing before he died. It explains the things falling on the piano. The spectral lights. Which, I had assumed was another ghost in the house ahead of him. Which, I guess is true, to a degree.

But then M finally gets the note out. And finally! We are going to get a chance to see it! And there was M-the-ghost flipping open the note he had spent hundreds of years trying to discover. And as he opens up the note – poof – blam – gone disappears both manifestations of himself. Here’s a pretty sweet quote from Lowery about this doubling back effect. Even though he wrote the time loop into the first draft, he didn’t initially anticipate the final shot of two ghosts standing there watching her.

“That was a spontaneous day on set that ended up being a very definitive and profound visual, and we could have kept it going!” he recalls. “We had done three takes of that shot, and then I thought, ‘When we shot this earlier for the first version, the ghost was standing at the window, so shouldn’t he be there? And if he could see the ghost next door, couldn’t he also see himself?’ I didn’t want to get too bogged down in rules, but it seemed like a nice visual reference to what’s happening. When we saw it on camera that day, we thought it really brought the movie home in a significant fashion.”

Somebody explain A Ghost Story’s ending to me

So what happened with that ending? The note was obviously the key necessary to free his soul from the wandering, lost, and confused soul that he had become. Remember that other ghost in the house next door? Well, he was confused and totally off kilter, completely unclear as to who they were waiting for. Could it be that the longer M roamed, the longer he waited, the more confused he’d become? But M seemed to maintain the singular mindset of his home, this place, and the note. Right? Even after waiting hundreds(?) of years to arrive back at his home again he began digging the note out right away.

For me, the movie was actually about that feeling of foreboding and dread of loss after losing someone close to you. Quick rabbit trail, I was four or five the first time I lost a very close friend. I remember his “catching” cancer and his losing his hair. I remember playing with him even when he was too sick to really interact, but I spent time with him because I knew no one else would. And the night Tom died, we were both in the same hospital together. I had just had my tonsils removed. And Tom had been admitted with yet another scary altercation with the demon cancer. But this time, Tom lost the battle, and succumbed to his injuries. And as I spent the next week or two eating jello and slurping cottage cheese I remember the true oppression that was my mourning. I remember scribbling drawings about Tom. I remember refusing to speak about it. It was as if he was there in the room with me, standing with a sheet over his head, watching from a distance.

This is what the movie was about for me. The real dance that the living have with the dead. Not the other way round. Though, I will forgive you if you wrongly disagree (heheh.)

But who cares about what the movie was ultimately about – what was in the note!?! What if we walk through a couple possibilities…

Theory Number #1 – Sod Off

This one made me laugh when I thought of it. What if she was just angry and pissed about the way things went and she just wrote “Sod off!” on the note. She had a feeling that he was still hanging around and decided to just tell him to bugger off? Yeah, I don’t like it either, but it was worth a chuckle.  Lowery even joked in one interview I saw that no one on the set knew what Rooney wrote… and even if she did, she’s not sharing. So what if, he said, what if it actually just said boo? Too funny.

A Ghost Story Note Theory #3 – Sentimentality and Best Wishes

If you were about to die, like literally had 20 seconds to decide what to say, for MOST people you’d snap into the normal ritual of things that you would say normally. “I love you – you mean the world to me…” whatever you normally say. So in this theory I assume that she just dashed off her thoughts of love and best wishes for M.

A Ghost Story Note Theory #3 – A Lyric

My personal favorite theory – and therefore, THE CORRECT theory – is that she wrote a lyric on the page. Better yet, what if she wrote a lyric from that song that M had played for her that he had written. (Which, was actually a song from the band Dark Rooms, a song called I Get Overwhelmed.) And, the opening stanza seems fairly apropos: “Are you runnin late? / Did you sleep too much? / All the awful dreams / Felt real enough / Is your lover there? / Is she wakin up? / Did she die in the night? / And leave you alone? / Alone.” What if she chose a line from this verse of his song? Like maybe, “Is your lover there? Is she wakin up?” Wouldn’t that have been the perfect closed loop for them both?

A Ghost Story Note Theory #4 – It really doesn’t matter

Theory four? Yeah, theory 4 is a cop out – but it’s what the director things… so yadda yadda, we’ll mention it here. So yeah, what if it doesn’t really matter? Further on in that interview with the writer and director Lowery, he said, “We thought about whether or not we should show it, but it doesn’t matter as much as just knowing that he got it. Nothing written there would mean anything to the audience at that point, and it would just complicate that moment — you’d see something, process it, and then wonder what it means.”

If you know me at all you know I do not, at all, like this answer. Any. I always want to push to the answer. I want to drive the logical to ground and figure out everything I can. But on this one… I don’t know. If it were real life – stretch I know – but if it were real I agree with Lowery. It wouldn’t make sense to us at all. It’d be totally non-sensical. Maybe it was a quote from a thing she sang around the house from their song. Or maybe it was just a simple letting go of whatever she was holding on to while eating that pie. I don’t know. But in this theory it is relevant to the two of them, and that’s all that really matters.

Final Thoughts on A Ghost Story

I know that many in American will absolutely trash this movie on Rottentomatoes and elsewhere. GAH! This movie as so slow! Awful movie. Terrible Plot! NOTHING HAPPENED. Sha. I found it a really an amazing film. Deeply profound. Made me think about what it would be like to lose my wife. What it would be like to really try and work through that pain. Truly. I really did find it fascinating at every level. Loved the loop back and the re-dive back into history.

And as for the note? The linch pin for the entire movie? I personally think that she would have scribbled a line from a lyric that M had written. Honoring him. Remembering him. And an homage to his creativity and his passions for place and this particular location. It actually logically follows. I may even tweet out to Rooney and Lowery to see what they think. But ultimately, I do agree with Lowery, it doesn’t really matter. We do know though, that the thing that was written on that page released him. Set him free. Right? I don’t know… what do you think was written on that page?

Little trivia? Rooney actually did write something on a page. And she actually did put it in the wall. And that not was actually lost when they demolished the house at the end of the film. Truly. Rooney is the only one who knows what’s on that page… HRMMM. Fascinating! hahah.

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24 Responses

  1. The Tester

    Okay, so, the exact nature of what is on the note is not that important since we see the effects of receiving the note. The questions to ask first before trying to figure out what content is on the note are: What is a ghost? Why does a ghost “haunt” a place? Why does a ghost linger? Is time immaterial for a ghost? The companion ghost in the movie states that she does not recall who she waits for, but when she realizes that those people aren’t returning, she disembodies. The protagonist ghost waits for decades or perhaps centuries. Would his wife actually still be alive? If she is not, where would she go? If he finally gave up all his remaining connections to the material plane, would he find her elsewhere? I think the note provided the answer he was waiting for.

    • Taylor Holmes

      That’s fair. I definitely don’t disagree with that sentiment. But the ADHD in me still wants to know. But I do find it funny that the crew wanted to know too but that Rooney wasn’t telling.

      As for the companion ghost… did we see that ghost disappear? I never saw that happen. Oh, did you think that the two ghosts in the room together were two different ghosts, and not two incarnations of M? You really have me at a loss here now… because I don’t remember that she disembodied. Remind me of what you are referring to because this is definitely one of my late breaking obsessions.

      • Cas

        The other ghost that he is referring to is the one that lived in the other house. When the houses were demolished, the other ghost realised that the person he was waiting for would not be coming back, and that epiphany set him free.

        Thank you for this article! I really like the exploration of the different themes in this movie, and find them to be beautiful. I like your theory about lyrics being written on the note, that would be really meaningful.

      • Taylor Holmes

        Hey thanks Cas,
        But when in the movie was that… when did that happen… the end? Middle? Some context so I can go search for it. I’d love to see that happen again. I am just drawing a blank on that happening. As to the lyrics, personally, that would be what I would have wanted her to write. But that might just be fairly selfish too! hahah. who knows.

        Anyway thanks for the comment!

  2. Tammy

    The exact moment that this happens is after the middle of the movie, around 68 minutes. 🙂

  3. Angel

    I also think that the contents of the note are irrelevant.

    My question would be – What set him free at the end?
    Was it the fact that after all this time he was able to read the note, whatever the contents, just to satisfy his curiosity. Or was it the text that was written there?

    Following the explanation provided in the movie, that the universe will implode and start over eventually from a dust particle, I can interpret the whole story as him, driven by the force of his love alone, waiting whatever time it takes until the events align in the exact same way so he can see her again.

    I just don’t understand the time travel bit where he was a ghost and made the sound on the piano, at a time when he was not actually a ghost yet.

  4. Juan Manuel Cespedes Sagot

    I got two theories:

    1- He loved that house, he said he and his wife had story together, so he couldnt rest in piece until he knows what is on the note, he just wanted to know if her wife had the same feelings about the house and their relationship and maybe she wrote something about it in the note.

    2- “Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting” this is the quote we get at the beggining, it´s from A Haunted House from Virginia Woolf and maybe that was what was written in the note. Mara character loved literature, we can see a lot books through the house, including Love in Time of Cholera from Garcia Marquez, so maybe she was thinking about something to write a remembered that quote that represents her feelings about the house. Also at the end we got not a door shutting but a door opening.

    • Taylor Holmes

      Sounds like a very good theory all the way around to me. I’m fairly attached to the music lyric theory. But yeah, the quote could be staring us in the face, for sure.

  5. De Advocate

    I was so excited about this movie. I was not familiar with the director, but was expecting it to be a bit different, so I was mostly pleasantly surprised. I know it was meant to convey the impact of intimate moments, but I wish it moved just a bit faster in the beginning. I forced myself to stick with it because I hoped the payoff was there, and it was.
    The ghost in the next house seemed to me to be a female, mostly because of the flowers on the sheet, but it was also played by Kesha, so I assume the director was thinking the same thing. Not that it mattered.
    So what was on The Note. I agree with the director, it doesn’t matter because it was something that resonated with Roona’s character and wouldn’t have had the same impact. The mystery of it, and how it set Casey’s character (the Ghost) free makes it have more impact. The more why’s this movie makes us ask, the better because it is addressing the eternal existential crisis…why are we here, what happens to us, what does it all mean. Questions without answers, or at least the answer simply lies within all of us.
    This is a movie I most likely will only watch once more in my life, if even that. It makes you soak in the moments of the film so fully, and opens up so many questions, there really isn’t a need to see it often. If you paid attention…

    • Taylor Holmes

      It was played by kesha?!? Like Ke$ha Kesha!?! Wow. I totally dropped that ball didn’t I!?!? Hahah but that’s why I’ve got you guys!!

      Oh no. I doubt I’ll watch again. But movies with this cadence are so rare. The original release of the film The Big Blue is the only other one coming to mind. Oh and Her. And Lost in Translation, and maybe Blade Runner amd 2049 and and… never mind! Hahaha.

      • De Advocate

        I don’t know what it is about Lost in Translation, but I could watch that movie over and over. It has some magic spell that washes over me.
        This movie, the way it addresses the enormity of time. I am still pondering the ramifications of the time loop. Why did he come back around? Is the family of settlers related to Rooney Mara’s character? They were all killed, so I am trying to figure out how they could have been her ancestors.
        I am simultaneously reading The Snowman, This is Where I leave You, The God Delusion, and The Bazaar of Bad Dreams so my head might explode if I dwell on this movie too much more…LOL

  6. Lindsey

    You have the character’s names, C and M, mixed up. Casey Affleck’s character is C not M. M is the female character.

  7. Donna

    I believe she wrote, I shall never pass this way again! Or something to the affect…. Since the ghost across the street “proofed” when it realized “they” weren’t coming back. The girl’s last memories and feelings would have been sad,loss,life changing,depressing,and unbearable….which no one wants to go through on purpose. If it had been a lyric he probably would have not left. The bald guys whole theory was we continue in time through our mark on this world….wouldn’t it be the opposite of continuing if he’d had proofed then? Besides her listening to his song earlier proved that he had left his mark on her through his music.

  8. Richard

    The director said the note was destroyed with the house and nobody knew what she wrote, but he read the note at the end before the House was destroyed correct? So how was it destroyed? This makes no sense. They Filmed the scene of him reading the note before the House was destroyed obviously, then later destroyed the house I get that. Did he read a dummy note and leave the real note it the wall? Confused.

      • Richard

        Sorry let me clarify what I am trying to understand. There seems to be a bit of a paradox in my mind regarding the comments made by the director about the note. Let me separate what happened in the narrative from reality, at least in my view.

        In the narrative:
        She wrote the note, placed it in the wall, and as the first ghost he was just about to read it when the house was destroyed. So the note was apparently destroyed with the house, he never read it, but he came back later as the second ghost and retrieved the note and read it, obviously before the house was destroyed. So did he read the note or not? Obviously he did read it as the second ghost.

        In reality:
        I read the directors comments about the note being destroyed so nobody knew what it said, but they must have filmed the scene where he read the note as the second ghost before they destroyed the house right? You cannot film a scene in another house, that would not make sense. So why would the director say nobody knew what the note said when Affleck clearly read it as the second ghost in the last scene before he vanished? Unless it was a fake note and they left the real one in the wall and destroyed the house.

        Sorry this is just making my head spin a little 😀

      • Taylor Holmes

        Thanks for explaining. I understand. I can only believe that when she placed the note in the wall it was either after the filming of him reading it, OR it was a different note that he pulled out of the wall. One of these two alternatives must be true based on what the director explained happened. But what do I know!?

  9. Annie

    Perhaps she writes: see you in next life or see you in Heaven (it seems like a small note so I figures not much words on it, and it is written when she moves on and moves out of the house, I am thinking it could be a moment for her to say goodbye to the past)… which makes him suddenly realize all the time he was lingering on the earth would never bring anything they had back (it seems he stubbornly believes she would move back somehow), since now they live in different dimension of time and space, no matter how he tried to affect the current “living” world, he could never be a part of it… maybe the only way to reunite with her again is to choose to move on as well, just like her, perhaps in the distant future their lives might cross again. The other ghost (with floral sheet) also waits for someone for way too long and she already forgets who that is… so the only reason she’s there is that she’s waiting. When she realizes the meaningless of that she relieves herself of it by being gone (perhaps to eternity, or heaven, well the world behind shinny glowing door which briefly opens in the hospital shortly after M becomes a ghost). So when M the ghost also realizes that the same happens (and they door opens for him again). I kinda love how they left it open for interpretation, but at the same time felt damn curious about the ultimate “truth” lol.

  10. Safe, safe, safe

    Movie starts with quote from A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf. C drops that book and M focuses reading its words “The treasure yours.” and little later, M writes a short note (like old rhyme or poem) about nice memory related to that house. I think I know exact words that she wrote.

  11. Cory

    What did the little pioneer girl write on the paper she tore from a book which she placed under a rock before she and her family were killed? Is there any significanc to this?


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