This review is for a film originally viewed at the 20th Annual Tallgrass Film Festival. WD;ED will update when the film becomes available either in theatres or on VOD.
We can feel haunted by a great many things. Guilt, finances, professional pressure, and sometimes even our own desire to just be alone for a bit. Clay Tatum, writer/director/star of The Civil Dead, has made an attempt to grapple with these ideas in one of the most cathartic and engaging films of 2022.
He makes no bones about how he feels, writing the character as himself. Clay stumbles through his life as an uninspired and unemployed photographer in L.A. that desperately wants some time to himself. There’s no desire to find inspiration or put together a new photo book at all, but rather a desire to be alone and drink beer in front of his tv with his cat. The trouble is that he has to pay his half of the bills and his more successful wife wants him to get back out there and do what he ostensibly loves. When she leaves for a shoot he promises to do so, but instead winds up running into a very clingy friend from his small childhood hometown and hanging out with him instead. Whit (Whitmer Thomas) moved out to L.A. to be an actor and failed spectacularly. He tried to contact Clay, but the latter merely ignored him. Clay discovers that Whit is dead and bound to him, unable to be seen or heard by anyone else, and begins struggling with what to do and how to go about his life with a ghost in tow.
Once in a while we’re given a human character that feels real, lived in, and far too familiar (at least to anyone that’s been in a rut). Clay is selfish, manipulative, and sort of shady despite the sweet relationship he shares with his wife. He’s frightened of Whit at first, later annoyed, and is constantly moving between drunken bliss with his new best friend and outright annoyance at the specter for being a ball and chain. He may look and feel like Zach Galifianakis, but he’s a man all his own. There’s a wonderful foible to him in Whit, a silly ghost that’s got some buried anger and spent a lifetime trying not to be put on the sidelines. Whether they’re bearing their souls, doing inebriated ninja kicks, or hustling a big-time Hollywood producer known only as Arnold (Robert Longstreet coming in to throw straight heat for less than ten minutes), the two have surreal chemistry that only comes from a lived-in friendship.
While Clay has a burden superimposed over his day-to-day life he seems to be struggling against adaptation or growth, an odd trait for a film and one you can only get away with in independent productions. There’s a hunger for the hilarity of this kind that usually resides in television shows like Seinfeld or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but bringing it to a feature targets a different audience. Both leads lie to one another, have fun together, and even hurt one another. There are moments of horror, played for laughs, but that dabble in the notion that our unkindness can follow us or have unexpected results. Those bits should feel uneven with the tone of the rest of the film, but the humor in them overshadows other, more awkward, and referential bits to make something quite special. The tonal shifts allow for a more impactful film than Tatum might pull off otherwise, and they serve as the secret weapon in a film that initially presents as something merely cute.
It helps that the film looks incredible. Much is made when the visual design is obvious, fantastical, and desperate to show off. The Civil Dead takes a different approach, utilizing small L.A. locations to take a look at the mundane and daily grind. Clay’s life is bland, but he’s content with that. Cinematographer Josh Hill has helped to design a world that never feels too far out of step with anyone else. Nothing is glitzy or glamorous, bright or beautiful. It all looks like a fall day in suburbia, and that lends an air of reality to the entire affair.
The Civil Dead had to sit with me for a while as I was unsure after its climax, but the more I thought about it the more I adored it. There’s an individuality amongst other buddy comedies, blended very well with its more menacing aspects, and the charm of these two awful-to-semi-likable people onscreen is enough to carry the project from a good time to an excellent one.