The title of John Hillcoat’s searing feature debut Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1988) involved a metaphor for the state’s incarcerated population, buried away in a privatised penal system and left to perpetuate decidedly uncivil behaviours. Clay Tatum’s buddy comedy The Civil Dead, which he wrote with co-star Whitmer Thomas, may seem to be far removed, beyond its similar title, from Hillcoat’s prison flick, but it does feature ghosts (of a different sort), as well as solitary confinement.
Clay Tatum (Tatum) is a Los Angeles photographer who specialises in what might be called hauntology, conjuring the merest suggestion of past life from shots of detritus abandoned in empty spaces. He is also something of an aimless, appetitive schlub who has enjoyed little success in this niche field since the publication of his photo book Trash in the River, while his wife Whitney (Whitney Weir), also a photographer, is much more in demand. Leaving town for a few days on an assignment and knowing too well her husband’s self-isolating couch-potato tendencies, Whitney instructs Clay to hook up with one of his old friends while she is away, and maybe to take some photographs outside.
In fact Clay will combine both these activities, as the purple-suited Whit (Thomas) wanders into the shot that Clay is taking near a cell tower in a lonely, liminal space. Clay last saw Whit some five years earlier back in their home town, and when Whit followed Clay to LA and kept texting his old friend, Clay unceremoniously ignored all his overtures, preferring to leave behind someone he never greatly liked anyway. Now accidentally reunited, the two spend the day together, and The Civil Dead becomes a sort of slacker hangout film – except that when it comes time for them to part company, Whit refuses to leave, revealing that he is in fact very dead, unable to be seen or heard by anyone but Clay, and keen to maintain his one human connection.
Though initially intrigued, and happy to profit from Whit’s invisibility during a poker game, Clay quickly tires of Whit’s weird omnipresence and annoying persistence. For like an animal in the attic – or a bad conscience – Whit insists on hanging around and shadowing his friend’s every waking and sleeping moment, and it is not long before this toxically tethered odd couple are beginning to resemble Miguel Arteta’s Chuck & Buck (2000). Whit’s intense neediness makes him like the increasingly irritant revenants from Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), Jeff Baena’s Life After Beth (2014) and Ben and Chris Blaine’s Nina Forever (2015), forcing Clay to decide whether to accommodate this ghost from his past, or to throw him away like the discarded trash that he commemorates in his photographs. Yet in trying to put Whit out of sight and out of mind, Clay may merely be repressing his own uncomfortable feelings about the friend he himself had previously ghosted.
Breezily funny yet also melancholic and cruel, The Civil Dead is not only a paranormal parable of friendship’s prisonhouse, but also an allegory of Clay’s creative process, as he sublimates his own sense of inadequacy, guilt and emptiness into the photos that he takes. Selfish, lazy and exploitative, Clay is a bad friend, but often from the worst of human qualities comes good art.
strap: In Clay Tatum’s haunted hangout comedy, a slacker photographer must decide whether he is buddy or ghostbuster to a returned acquaintance
© Anton Bitel