Ghosts of the Ozarks

Ghosts of the Ozarks (2021)

Ghosts of the Ozarks has its international première at Grimmfest Easter Edition 2022

In 1866, America was a scarred country which, having just emerged from the violent divisions of Civil War, was in need of healing. As a young physician who had served the Union as a field surgeon, African-American James McCune (Thomas Hobson) might seem well-placed to help tend the nation’s gaping wounds, starting with his own hidden trauma from recent combat experience. Summoned by a letter from his long-lost uncle Matthew (Phil Morris), James comes to a walled community deep in the Ozarks – a retreat and ‘haven’ from the horrors of the world outside. Shortly before James arrives, these external horrors are given two distinct forms: the first is the casually understated racism of a stranger (Scott Dean) who tries to bushwhack and rob James in his camp; and the second is a monstrous creature that emerges half-seen from a red fog to snatch James’ assailant away. Shaken and confused, James heads on through the night to the fortified town – and it is now clear, if it was not already from the title, that the genre of Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long’s Ghosts of the Ozarks is going to travel into territories beyond the western where it at first appears to belong.

Founded just shy of 25 years earlier, Norfork seems a progressive idyll – literally as well as metaphorically enlightened by lamps which, fuelled with gas that the residents mine themselves, illuminate the darkness. Unlike the saloons from a typical oater, the town’s central hostelry is free from vice and violence, even if its wooden walls are festooned with peculiar cultic artwork. There is a school for the local children, there is a sense of purpose among the adults, and most strikingly of all, the co-founder and respected leader of this otherwise white community is Matthew, who is as black as his nephew, and whose surname the orphaned James has adopted, making him practically a father to the protagonist. “People here, they don’t care what you look like, James, not one bit,” says Michael. “Could you ever have dreamt of a notion like that out there, outside of these walls?”

Yet while the isolated township has remained mysteriously untouched by the Civil War and the racial conflicts which that war bloodily incarnated, it remains beleaguered by the aggressive fog-borne creatures on the other side of the fence which have become known as ‘ghosts’ and have assumed a quasi-religious status in the town’s governing principles of god-fearing justice and punishment. Those folk who have survived encounters with the ghosts have been left with eyes, limbs or tongues missing, ensuring that James not only provides a useful service through his medical training but, with his own hideous war wound, fits right in. 

Every utopia conceals a dystopia – and much as blind Torb (Tim Blake Nelson) and his wife Lucille (Angela Bettis) stage a double-act for their paying customers in which the butcher-cum-bartender appears, impossibly, able to see again, much of what happens in Forktown is smoke and mirrors carefully designed to bamboozle the townsfolk. Indeed, when James asks, “Are they real?”, Torb is (expressly) uncertain whether the newcomer is referring to their parlour tricks, or to the ghosts. In this isolated nineteenth-century community being controlled by circling monsters and its own blind faith, traces of M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Village (2004) and even television’s Lost (2004-10) can be discerned – yet much as every year the townspeople celebrate Norfork’s anniversary by dressing in animal masks and gathering around a wooden effigy like the pagan islanders from Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), Ghosts of the Ozarks turns a high-minded American foundation myth into both folk horror and its deconstruction, lifting the veil and revealing the elaborate machinery of its own legend. 

For as amateur photographer Douglas (David Arquette) tries to capture proof of the ghosts with his cumbersome studio camera, and as James, working with hunter/nurse Annie (co-writer Tara Perry) and her mute brother William (Joseph Ruud), seeks to uncover the ghosts’ secret and to expose the corruption, deceit and rot that lies buried beneath the town’s façade of harmony, Glass and Long’s film offers up a microcosm of a wider America which, to this day, remains polarised, exploited and quite literally gaslit by a leadership bent on serving its own interests more than the people’s. Ultimately Ghosts of the Ozarks holds out the seeds of change for a potentially better world – albeit one still built on the same wild, grubby foundations – while simultaneously suggesting that the source of past ills is still very much alive, if damaged, and plotting its next vengeful move. So this is all at once the American dream and its dark flipside, both co-existing in lasting, perhaps permanent disunion, with slavery of one kind or another ever resurgent and idealism readily, repeatedly soiled. 

strap: Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long’s monstrous horror-western hybrid exposes a divided community – and nation – where Civil War never ends

© Anton Bitel