[Review] 'Ghosts of the Ozarks' is an Emotionally Beautiful Haunter that Struggles to Find Its Purpose
Home is where the ghosts are…
…At least that’s the case for the townspeople of Norfork in directors Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long’s western horror Ghosts of the Ozarks, in which the ghosts of the past become a frightening prison.
Set in post-Civil War Arkansas and written by Long, Tara Perry and Sean Anthony Davis, Ghosts of the Ozarks introduces us to James (Thomas Hobson), a black doctor and survivor of the war who has been summoned to the town which his uncle Matthew (Phil Morris) runs as a replacement for the previous doc. At first, Norfork seems like the perfect utopia, where James’ purpose is all that matters in the eyes of others, not the color of his skin. But James soon learns not all is sunshine and rainbows, and beneath the smiles and kind hellos is a fear of what lurks in the surrounding forest, and what happens to anyone who tries to leave.
When we first meet James, he’s miraculously still a man who has hope for civility, considering the horror he’s seen. That makes him a better person than most of us, but the knowledge of the darkness that lurks within others is still with him, as we see during an ugly chance encounter between James and a white racist in the woods early on. While racism and the trauma of the Civil War and slavery are not necessarily at the forefront of Ghosts of the Ozarks, the specters of those awful terrors haunt the film. Between the scars which James and his uncle wear, both physically and mentally, and the strong theme of finding purpose in the world, Ghosts of the Ozarks is a powerfully moving story that explores our need to feel, well, wanted, expressed through these two men and the different ways in which they react to a society that has set them free but still refuses to accept them.
Which is why Norfork—featuring impressive production design from Long that brings the era to life—seems like such a perfect slice of Utopia…at first. James quickly learns that this place, while mostly white, doesn’t care about what you look like. As long as you can help, you’re welcome. Matthew talks proudly of the town he’s earned the trust of, consistently reminding James that the outside world isn’t so welcoming. In Norfork, everything is “perfect”, highlighted by the overly bright and sunny lighting. Never mind that the town feels like more of a cage, enclosed by a guarded gate where one must request permission to leave.
Plus, you know, ghosts.
More of a dark drama than a straight up horror movie, Ghosts of the Ozarks is largely carried by an incredible cast of characters that includes Tara Perry as Annie, a no bullshit hunter who catches James’ eye; A blind barkeep named Torb (Tim Blake Nelson) and his wife, Lucille (the always wonderful Angela Bettis); And let’s not forget the town tailor and James’ new sort of best friend, Douglas (David Arquette, proving once again that he’s one of the most charming people on the planet). Through Ghosts’ slower moments—of which there are plenty—we’re treated to this talented cast delivering performances that are engaging, endearing, and highly entertaining. Angela Bettis and Tim Blake Nelson singing a piano duet is worth the price of admission alone. Yet no one steals the scene quite like Hobson, who is so warm and genuine in the role that you want nothing but the best for him.
Just underneath the surface though is a sense that none of these people are as happy as they seem.
Thematically, the ghosts work as clever stand-ins for the pain that keeps James, Matthew and the other lost souls of Norfork inside. They’re the hatred that exists in the world just past our front doors. These ethereal creepers fit the bill too, arriving with a spooky red fog effect that plunges the scenery into a hellish landscape. These aren’t your chain-rattling corpses, either. These ghosts look more like devilish samurai, large and fearsome and monstrous. Which is why it’s a damn shame that they fall so much into the background.
Ghosts of the Ozarks is as quiet as the dead on the suspense front. It’s tough to make your audience feel afraid when the characters don’t seem all that bothered by the ghosts, most strangely, James himself, who reacts pretty casually to the whole idea. Tougher still when said ghosts hardly play much of a role. Instead of the spirits being the A story and James’ relationship with Annie being the B story (which isn’t all that interesting), the reverse is true. The characters are never actively trying to solve the mystery around the ghosts, which seems...odd. And if you’re looking for good scares, you won’t find them in Norfork. Poor pacing and the lack of chills or any force actively driving the story makes Ghosts of the Ozarks feel like it’s moving at the pace of a Romero zombie, one that just can’t seem to find its footing.
“Time is all there is out here,” mentions one character. Yeah, well, understatement of the year, that right there.
In more ways than one, Ghosts of the Ozark is an underwhelming experience that might have you feeling trapped like the townspeople of Norfork. Great performances and a meaningful message about the way in which trauma causes us to isolate ourselves within are sure to melt the coldest of hearts out there, just don’t expect to be anxious to revisit Norfork anytime soon.
Ghosts of the Ozarks comes to VOD February 3rd from XYZ Films.
By Matt Konopka