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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Phil Hoad

Ghosts of the Ozarks review – shrewd Twin Peaksy allegory that musters dark forces

Tim Blake Nelson, Angela Bettis and Thomas Hobson in Ghosts of the Ozarks.
A fruity gallery of oddballs … from left: Tim Blake Nelson, Angela Bettis and Thomas Hobson in Ghosts of the Ozarks. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Developed from a 2016 short, Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long’s post-US Civil War supernatural thriller isn’t just atmospheric and characterful, it’s an often shrewd allegory of the US self-image as the shining “city on a hill”. Thomas Hobson plays James McCune, a black doctor and war veteran nurturing physical and psychological wounds, who is summoned by his Uncle Matthew (Phil Morris) to a post in Norfolk, a walled town sequestered deep in the Ozark forest. When he arrives, he is shocked to encounter a biracial paradise where, as the preachy saloon murals have it, “To each their purpose”. But there are strict rules, imposed by Matthew, about venturing beyond the palisade where horned ghosts are apt to emerge from banks of red fog with a particular hunger for local troublemakers. As another mural counsels, “Honour your ghosts”.

There’s something almost Twin Peaksy about this idyll around which dark forces muster. The film gathers together a fruity gallery of oddballs, including David Arquette as a friendly amateur photographer and Tim Blake Nelson as the blind Scandinavian saloon owner (following up his O Brother, Where Art Thou? yodelling and his turn as the West Texas Tit in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, he gets a great musical number). Lingering among this motley lineup is a pleasure, bedded in by Long’s superb production design and Brianna Quick’s costumes, though, given the town’s supposed racial composition, it’s strange that the supporting cast isn’t more diverse.

At first Norfolk seems to stand as a contrast to the rest of the US, but as James digs into its underbelly, it becomes clear it is actually a symbol of the country and its flaws: its propensity to corrupt its elite and co-opt minorities, and the historical fog of violence used to prop up power. Glass and Long slightly struggle to get their story moving under this allegorical weight – it mostly revolves around James’s quasi-romantic involvement with Annie (Tara Perry, who also co-wrote), a hunter living outside the walls. And, once under way, the film sometimes rushes to fulfil its conclusions, down to a rather anticlimactic reveal. But there’s purpose and pointedness here all the same.

• Ghosts of the Ozarks is available on digital platforms on 23 May.

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