Review: ‘Ghosts of the Ozarks’ pairs a fascinating setting with a less than compelling story
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The first sign of something eerie in the supernatural thriller “Ghosts of the Ozarks” comes when James McCune (Thomas Hobson) — a Black doctor bearing the physical and emotional scars of the recently concluded Civil War — is greeted warmly on his arrival at the nearly all-white gated community of Norfork, Ark. Right away, we know we must be in an alternate version of the 19th century American South, riven by a different kind of social division: where people aren’t separated by race, but by who’s in danger.
Dr. McCune has come to Norfork at the invitation of his Uncle Matthew (Phil Morris), who has become the town’s big boss, primarily due to his deeper understanding of the opportunities this place affords. Norfork, according to the locals, is surrounded by rampaging monsters that keep its citizens trapped but also protect them from any interlopers. For a prosperous Black man in postbellum Arkansas, there are plenty of good reasons to shut out curious strangers.
“Ghosts of the Ozarks” was co-directed by Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long, from a script by Long and Tara Perry (the latter of whom also plays Annie, a hardy sort who lives outside the Norfork walls with her strong, silent brother). Though the title and premise suggest a horror film, this movie is more of a historical drama, with fantastical elements.
The filmmakers primarily seem concerned with world building — something at which they excel. The Norfork citadel looks impressively realistic, and the references to what the characters endured during the Civil War effectively flesh out a larger picture, looming just outside the frame. There are even a few fun science fiction tinges, as the McCunes rely on handmade technology that seems beguilingly alien for the era.
Glass, Long and Perry are less successful as storytellers though. “Ghosts of the Ozarks” is an often fascinating puzzle, but once the explanations for what’s really plaguing Norfork start rolling in, any remaining narrative tension dissipates quickly. Even before then, the lack of scares and action proves detrimental.
The filmmakers deserve a lot of credit for originality, and the cast should get a pat on the back for character development. This movie has a setting and story unlike any other, and the players (including a blind saloon-keeper played by Tim Blake Nelson and a friendly local businessman played by David Arquette) help create a memorable environment.
It’s just too bad that “Ghosts of the Ozarks” ends before the creative team really gets to make the most of what they’ve constructed. This film introduces a fine metaphorical space — a fortress that bigots and parasites are afraid to approach — but the people who dwell there are far more interesting than what happens therein.
'Ghosts of the Ozarks'
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Feb. 4 and Feb. 6, Alamo Drafthouse, downtown Los Angeles; available Feb. 3 on VOD.
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