Ghosts of the Ozarks, 2022.
Written and Directed by Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long.
Starring Thomas Hobson, Tara Perry, Phil Morris, Angela Bettis, David Arquette, Tim Blake Nelson, Joseph Ruud, David Aaron Baker, Neva Howell, Brandon Gibson, Scott Dean, Graham Gordy, Skylar Olivia Flanagan, and Taylor Alden.
In post-Civil War Arkansas, a young doctor is mysteriously summoned to a remote town in the Ozarks only to discover that the utopian paradise is filled with secrets and surrounded by a menacing, supernatural presence.
Ghosts are real. So goes the opening narration of Ghosts of the Ozarks, a supernatural mystery involving a post-Civil War enclosed town protected from nearby tree monsters that patrol the surrounding woods inside materialized clouds of red smoke. These practical effects are admirable, even if they aren’t necessarily creepy (and a case could be made that they are supposed to be full-on haunting), so credit goes to newcomer writers and directors Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long (Sean Anthony Davis is also credited as a screenplay collaborator). The atmosphere throughout the story is uneasy, presenting a fictional utopia free from racism where something else sinister is brewing (for the gamers out there, I felt some Bioshock vibes if one of the games was set during the Ozarks 1866).
Thomas Hobson is James ‘Doc’ McCune (reprising the role he played in the short of the same name), written to and urged to trek into this supposedly welcoming town as a replacement physician. Presumably, the ghosts got to the last one. Intriguingly, Doc’s uncle Matthew (Phil Morris) runs these day-to-day operations, where, as a replacement for money, everyone living in the town has a purpose. No racism and inequality are too good to be true, so clearly, something is afoot here. However, seeing a Black man in charge bringing his nephew into the fold following some of America’s darkest days is a relatively intriguing concept and does eventually pave the way for moderately compelling conversations about security and freedom.
Ghosts of the Ozarks also has pleasantly unhurried pacing that works for Doc slowly getting acquainted with all notable town figures. They range from a tailor interested in photography (David Arquette injecting some weird energy into his character), a hunter (Tara Perry) formerly of the town that now lives on the outskirts with her towering mute brother (Joseph Ruud, also known as WWE’s Erick Rowan, making the most of the cliché silent muscle) catching meals, a blind innkeeper (an expressive yet restrained Tim Blake Nelson) performing parlor tricks, patients for Doc to tend to that could also play a part in the mystery (some of which skeptical of whatever advice he has to give in what feels like thinly veiled racism still existing here), and plenty more faces. There are too many characters here, as most of them don’t register as distinct or worth remembering, but they add to the project’s scope, which is pulled off nicely despite its low budget.
Of course, the mystery here is that people keep going missing and winding up dead, especially in the middle of the night and even with guards posted up near the front gate. Doc also has some unexplained scars on his arm that he hides from the rest of the townspeople. And there are certainly some questions to be had about his uncle requesting ingredients for an unnecessarily potent concoction to aid him falling asleep on nights of intolerable pain. However, the most engaging dynamic emerges between Doc and hunter Annie, most notably when they open up about their pasts and how it affects their friendship and mutual respect for one another. It’s also an area the filmmakers could have dug into deeper for something more socially meaningful.
It shouldn’t be a surprise what is going on in Ghosts of the Ozarks, but there are enough likable characters (either because they are bizarre or grappling with real-world issues outside of this too good to be true utopia) and suspenseful beats to keep it watchable all the way through. It also helps that Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne are unafraid to take some weird swings here, such as a musical montage that grants Tim Blake Nelson a chance to sing an ominous tune that’s rather catchy and welcome to hear twice as it plays over the ending credits (the score itself also comes courtesy of Matt Glass). These filmmakers capture an unsettling mood that carries the story through its weaker aspects, with Thomas Hobson coming out as a lead worth paying attention to in the future.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com