Ghosts of the Ozarks tees up a potentially fascinating horror-western premise, but much of its appeal dissipates as its back half becomes frustratingly obvious.
There’s mystery afoot in the Deep(ish) South of Ghosts of the Ozarks, a sort of horror-western that slowly reveals itself to be something simultaneously more complex and less satisfying than that simple description. Beginning in the aftermath of the Civil War, young Dr. James McCune (Thomas Hobson) has been summoned by his uncle Matthew (Phil Morris) to the small town of Norfork, Arkansas. But before James can reach his destination, he is attacked by a transient. Quickly, however, the surrounding forest fills with smoke and eerie red lights as a spectral figure whisks the highwayman away, sparing the good doctor. Shocked by what he has seen, James is further amazed to finally reach the town only to find himself welcome with open arms, despite the fact that he is Black. Indeed, James’ race seems not to matter at all in this virtually all-white community, although it’s unclear if this is a relief or a red flag. Further, the townsfolk are very much aware of the “ghosts” that prowl the surrounding forest, so much so that they post sentries at night to stand guard, while citizens are only allowed to leave the protective gates with special permission. Much of the film’s early goings are filled with James getting the lay of the land and meeting his new neighbors, including a blind barkeep and his wife (a very welcome Tim Blake Nelson & genre stalwart Angela Bettis); a friendly businessman with an interest in photography (David Arquette); and Annie (Tara Perry), a young woman who used to live in town but now resides outside its walls along with her mute brother.
It’s a fascinating collection of oddballs and eccentrics, and co-writers/co-directors Matt Glass & Jordan Wayne Long do an admirable job of weaving necessary exposition into these introductory scenes. Eventually, as James settles in, strange occurrences begin piling up. Nothing’s quite as it seems here in Norfork, and it becomes clear that this place might be less a utopia than a prison. Locals drop hints as to what has happened to James’ predecessor, while Annie seems reluctant to admit to what drove her and her brother away from the relative safety of Norfork’s walls. Even Uncle Matthew seems to have some ulterior motives for summoning James. Like a lot of mysteries, and episodes of The Twilight Zone for that matter, the narrative hums along nicely as questions are raised, but less so once answers are required. All of the filmmakers’ admirable world-building falls to the wayside as it becomes frustratingly obvious where the story is headed, including the true nature of the “ghosts” and what’s really going on in the mine at the center of town. There’s a lot to like here, including a couple of nicely gruesome action beats and a uniformly fine cast, but eventually the film dissipates into a collection of familiar tropes and Scooby Doo-style unmaskings. There’s an interesting metaphor here for the lie at the heart of post-Reconstruction American society, the way that our racist history is sublimated into capitalist industrialization, but Ghosts of the Ozarks loses the thread as it devolves into simplistic allegory (and cribs heavily from a specific Shyamalan film, to boot). Regrettably, given its early promise, we’ll have to chalk this one up to a swing and a miss.
Published as part of Before We Vanish — February 2022.