The central question of Paul Harrill’s gentle chiller Light from Light is the same one ghost stories have been asking for centuries: is the house haunted? Richard (Jim Gaffigan), who’s begun experiencing strange phenomena since his wife passed away in a plane crash, suspects it may be. Shelia (Marin Ireland), who works a normal desk job during the day and moonlights as a paranormal researcher, has her doubts. But by the time we arrive at an answer, both we and the film have almost forgotten it was ever asked to begin with.
This is because, at first glance, the focus of the film is on more ordinary matters. Classifying Light from Light within a specific genre, however reductive, will inevitably lead you to “horror,” but Harrill himself was adamant that such a comparison be evoked only in passing. In his interview with Michał Oleszczyk on RogerEbert.com, Harrill addresses his film’s lack of overt reliance on the ghostly genre: “I very much wanted to avoid that… When I shared a very early draft of the screenplay with my filmmaker friend who is much more interested in genre filmmaking… he found that maddening. I didn’t want to upset him, but this reaction actually made me very happy. It meant I was on the right track.” This track is much further aligned with a film like Leave No Trace than The Exorcist; although the plot kicks off when Shelia is contacted by her priest (David Cale), who offers her Richard’s case, her acceptance and initial investigation occupy only the first twenty minutes or so. The rest of the runtime is a very patient, very compassionate character study: Richard and Shelia bond over past griefs that haunt them more than any ghost we ever see, and Shelia’s son Owen (Josh Wiggins) navigates the treacherous waters of first love with his classmate Lucy (Atheena Frizzell).
Wiggins and Frizzell each give admirable turns; although both performances are occasionally tinged with that stubborn streak of student-film melodrama, they’re able to tap into the natural awkwardness of chemistry found only in high school. Ireland’s name is new to me, but her work here makes a lasting impression. She plays Shelia with an understated weariness that seems at first to be the natural product of single motherhood, but gradually reveals itself to reflect an inner turmoil of one whose search for answers has never yielded much fruit. In the film’s first scene, she listens to her recent radio interview: the host asks, “Would you consider yourself a skeptic?” and she replies, “I don’t know… I don’t know what I am.” Her identity is at war with itself: a ghost hunter who may not believe in ghosts. Both her day job at a car rental establishment and her occupation as paranormal investigator reflect her gift — she helps people get where they need to be — but one gets the sense that she herself is looking for something, too.
Gaffigan’s command is only slightly behind hers, his restrained quietness masterfully conveying hopeful grief as he mourns his wife’s death and wonders whether some trace of her may still be left. His part here reaffirms my affection for comedy actors in serious roles, that blissful moment when the Evan Almighties and the live action Grinches demand atonement and we get an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I find Gaffigan’s comedy tolerably funny with a swiftly declining rate of return (although his Catholic bits are especially amusing), but he can rest assured that due penance will be bestowed for his wonderful work here.
All of this unfolds over the backdrop of East Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, the territory I grew up in and love, and one Harrill obviously does, too. He treats it nearly as a character in and of itself, his eye almost as attentive to the region’s gentle slopes and foggy peaks as it is to the people who occupy them. The film’s minimal score (courtesy of Adam Granduciel and Jon Natchez) is a rhythmic, ethereal strumming that perfectly marries the alluring physicality of the land and the suppressed longing that fills the characters.
For Richard, it’s a longing for reunion, or at least, reassurance of reunion one day. “People think ghosts are scary,” he tells Shelia at one point. “I think it’d be wonderful if they were real.” (This near-direct paraphrase of Reynolds Woodcock’s assertion that “I don’t find ghosts spooky at all” came mere moments after the palpable yearning of Light from Light made me think of that quote from Phantom Thread). I love the way Harrill conveys Richard’s aching loneliness: during the scene in which he first shows Shelia around his house, the camera repeatedly lingers on the empty space left behind after they walk offscreen. There’s something infinitely more haunting about an empty house than one that still holds a ghost.
For Shelia, it’s a longing for proof of something that transcends the material drudgery of the world. “Things only matter if they last,” she tells Owen at one point, explaining her disenchantment with life as she perceives it. She’s desperate to find something that lasts, and her greatest fear is that she never will. This line comes a good way into the film, and is delivered with the suggestive weight of a thesis. At first it seems dismissively cynical, and I worried if this signaled a change in thematic direction. What about Owen and Lucy’s budding relationship, which prompted her advice in the first place? Surely there is value to be found there, even if it doesn’t result in a lifelong commitment. And what of those commitments that, due to the suffering we all encounter in life, end prematurely? Richard’s marriage didn’t last, as long as he would have hoped, at least. Must we, upon unexpected termination of plans and dreams, declare that they do not and never did matter?
But this idea, that things only matter if they last, isn’t rejected but reaffirmed as the film progresses. “What’s the point of getting together if you know it’s going to end?” Owen asks Shelia. Richard is wondering the same thing; he and Owen sit at opposite ends of romantic love’s journey, but are forced to consider the same question. If Light from Light came from the assumption that nothing lasts — that nothing lies beyond the temporal boundaries of time and space — such a position would indeed be very cynical. There would be no point in getting together, for it would only end eventually. But if it’s true that things only matter if they last, it’s also true that if a thing matters, it lasts. Light from Light ultimately reveals itself to have a very high view of eternity, its very title taken from the creed that proclaims “His kingdom will never end.” By the time the film works its way back to the question it started with — whether the spirit of Richard’s wife lives on, or whether it is gone forever — an answer is logically clear. Their love matters, and so it lasts. It is a bond death itself cannot break, even though it hides it for a while.
During the Q&A that followed my screening, Harrill recalled his producer phoning him the morning of a shoot to tell him that a tree on their “plane crash” site had been struck by lightning the night before, splitting and falling perfectly in the crash’s wake (the location being in a state park, the crew had obviously been unable to further stage the area beyond how they found it). “Paul, God must love this film,” the producer had said. I agree with him. I think this is exactly the kind of film God loves.
(Light From Light is available to stream starting March 31st.)