★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Directed by Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long
The horror western Ghosts of the Ozarks is a curiosity. It feels like a wholly original concept and yet it telegraphs all its plot movements. It is populated full of interesting characters with some pretty notable actors, but in their fun quirkiness, they end up playing like one-note caricatures. And, in spending most of its time world-building, the film fails to propel the story in any dramatic or scary way.
It was a missed opportunity.
I rooted for this movie. It was one of my “Looking Forward To” movies of 2022. It’s funny how at the beginning of the year, most of the great movies to come are complete unknowns, so you start digging for what is scheduled to be released, and you end up settling on picking an interesting concept that shows promise.
The idea for this film was compelling. A young black man, James McCune (Thomas Hobson) who risked life and limb in the civil war as a medic to become a doctor travels at the behest of his uncle to the remote Ozark hamlet Norfork. His Uncle Matthew (Phil Morris) is the leader of the remote enclave, where everyone appears to be treated equally, and everyone knows their place within the community.
It’s a mining town, made successful by the harvesting of natural gas, but held in check by mysterious ghosts that appear within red vapor mists that abduct and mutilate the unwary who travel into the woods. The locals idolize the ghosts, as protectors and guides for the town, and nobody much questions what their motivations are.
The town is populated with an assortment of eccentric citizens including the blind barkeep Torv (Tim Blake Nelson, Oh Brother Where Art Thou), his no-nonsense wife Lucille (Angela Bettis – May, 12 Hour Shift), the eager tailor Douglas (David Arquette, Scream), and the hunting brother and sister duo of the brave Annie (Tara Perry, 12 Hour Shift) and the hulking William (Joseph Ruud, WWE). There is a multitude of other characters, but herein lies the problem. This movie spends so much time introducing new characters that it runs out of runway to tell a fundamentally compelling story. By the time the film is done introducing everybody, the movie is half over.
The central story revolves around Douglas, who struggles with being in a too-good-to-be-true environment and befriending the tomboyish yet sweet Annie who convinces him that indeed… it is too good to be true. But neither of them can really put a finger on what is going on. Somebody in town is holding a whole host of secrets and will resort to threats and murder to see it through. Cue mustache twirls now.
Ghosts of the Ozarks reminds me of the ’90s show Northern Exposure, with a slightly creepy vibe, but for all its good intentions the connective tissue is paper thin. You can see every story beat coming. Even though the villain of the story is kept under wraps for the first half of the movie, you identify him right away. Nefarious actions are badly telegraphed.
Attempts at humorous banter fall flat. The erstwhile talented cast occasionally looked like they were waiting for their lines. Key characters pop up exactly when you would expect them to return. The ending is rushed. The conclusion is hackneyed to the point of being a Scooby Doo denouement.
And yet I rooted for this movie. I rooted for the characters. I became enamored with the quirky folks of Norfork, I just wished they had something more to do, in the end. The movie also looked terrific and after watching the extra features, I realize how much heart and effort was put into making the sets and costumes to make it look as wonderful as it did. The director, Long, enlisted his dad and a couple of his good friends to build the whole town by scratch in a back lot in Arkansas.
For a modest budget indie film, it managed to round up a respectable cast, and put them in great costumes on great sets… but it really needed a new script. Interestingly, this was greenlit based upon a short film that also starred Perry and Hobson, but it doesn’t really take on any of the plot threads of the short film. That’s probably just as well, for, despite the full feature being a bit of a plot shambles, the short film was similarly high on style and low on substance.
I just feel like a mulligan is in order. Try this again. Employ true menace. Keep the characters. Keep the look. Hire Quentin Tarantino for a script.
Ghosts of the Ozarks is not rated, but would probably earn a PG-13. There is some violence and a little bit of gore, but there isn’t anything that would be particularly offensive to teens and above. Ghosts of the Ozarks is available streaming on Amazon Prime.