Review: THE CIVIL DEAD, Uncomfortably Smart Take on the Boredom of Death
Probably most of us, at one time or another, have had a friend in our lives, whose friendship, after a time, became more of a burden than a gift. The friend who can't seem to read social cues or take hints as to when their company is no longer desirable. (And it's entirely possible that some of us have been that friend). Fear of hurting someone's feelings, but more likely, dislike of being 'the bad guy' or being cowardly, might lead us to not telling this friend how annoying they are, or just cutting them out of our lives without any warning. But what if, getting rid of them was impossible?
The Civil Dead, the first feature from filmmaking team Clay Tatum and Whitmer Thomas, goes from quirky to cringey to quietly terrifying, in its exploration of the limits of friendship, loyalty, and sanity. Winner of the Audience Award at Slamdance in 2022, it's both an offbeat indie comedy and something of a horror story, a portrait of two somewhat sadsack men who are pushed to the limits by crushing need and desperation.
Clay (Tatum) has not had much success in his chosen profession of photography, and he's getting pretty desperate for money. While his girlfriend Whitney (Whitney Weir), a successful artist, encourages him to keep at it while she's out of town. He manages one rather underhanded way to scam money from people, then wanders Los Angeles do take some photos. In the oddest location, he happens upon Whit (Thomas), a guy he knew from his hometown. They end up spending the day together, but when, the next morning, Clay has had enough of this guy (who really is only 'enjoyable' because Clay was alone and maybe a little bored) and tries to get him to leave, Whit reveals that he can't, for quite a compelling reason.
[It's impossible to discuss the film without revealing something that could be considered a spoiler. So if you don't want that, read no further].
You see, it turns out that Whit is dead. He can't remember how he died or even where his body might be, but Clay gets definitive proof that Whit is indeed, a ghost, and it takes some processing. At first, having a ghost in his life has its advantages, especially financial ones. Whit can be entertaining enough, Clay doesn't seem to have many friends, and with his wife out of town, he's bored and lonely. But, he's only going to be bored and lonely enough for the company of someone like Whit, for so long.
It's not that Clay thinks Whit is a bad guy, it's just that he's the kind of guy he would only hang out with if there wasn't anyone else around. But then, Whit isn't around, not really. The naturalism of this relationship is deeply disturbing in its accuracy: Clay and Whit are pretty similar, but Clay at least has a chance at making his life better; Whit does not. So Whit is a constant reminder to Clay of what he could spiral into if he doesn't get his life together; he could end up alone and forgotten, just like Whit.
For it seems that Whit can't do anything without Clay. At least physically (the physics that Tatum and Thomas decide on for the ghost are really clever and make perfect sense); but emotionally? Well being a ghost is lonely. Sure, he can go anywhere, and see anything, but Whit has no one to talk to about his experiences. Except Clay. And it's driving both of them crazy.
But this is not a film that asks for audience empathy, or to necessarily take sides. It's asking us to take a hard look at why we form friendships, and what we do when only one of us wants to end it. This isn't about magic or revenge or some glorious heaven to ascend to, but the mundanity of living, or as a ghost, just existing when you don't think you have anything to look forward to unless you make the change yourself. Unless, of course, change is quite literally impossible.
A inventive and original ghost story, The Civil Dead is as awkwardly funny as it it disturbing and a few times quite frightening. You will definitely think twice about that bump in the night you heard, and might find yourself motivated to make some drastic life changes.
The Civil Dead
- Clay Tatum
- Clay Tatum
- Whitmer Thomas
- Clay Tatum
- Whitmer Thomas
- DeMorge Brown