Arthouse distro Utopia (Shiva Baby) is back with its latest, The Civil Dead.
Clay (Clay Tatum) is a wannabe photographer who's not particular good at it and not particularly inspired. Content to sit around eating candy and watching television while his live-in girlfriend (Whitney Weir) is off for the weekend being a successful, well, photographer, Clay is scrounging to pay his half of the month's rent while also struggling to recover from a particularly awful self-inflicted haircut.
So, it's not that surprising when he proves to be more than a little oblivious to the presence of Whit (Whitmer Thomas), an estranged from back-home friend who suddenly shows up but barely warrants a mention.
Oh, I forgot to mention that Whit also just so happens to be a ghost.
Or at least that's what he says.
I'm not sure I realized that the world needed a mumblecore slacker comedy with a thread of horror, but that's exactly what we're getting with The Civil Dead and it's exactly what I needed.
The Civil Dead picked up the Audience Award at Slamdance 2022 before landing with Utopia, an inspired distributor for this difficult to peg film. Thomas and Tatum will tour with the film for live Q&As, starting on 2/3 with Alamo Drafthouse in DTLA and expanding to Alamo Drafthouse Manhattan on 2/10 (eventually landing on demand on 2/17).
Friends and frequent collaborators, and I think both Tatum and Thomas are actually alive, Tatum also directed Thomas' celebrated HBO special The Golden One.
While this sort of supernatural comedy isn't exactly unheard of, The Civil Dead is refreshingly devoid of any forced meaningful or faux emotiveness. In fact, if there's a complaint to be had with The Civil Dead it may very well be that this slackerish comedy slacks a little bit too much to maintain its 104-minute running time.
Whitmer Thomas's Whit is a hilarious concoction of a ghost, neither as otherworldly as we would expect nor as fully embodied as he may have once been. It's some of Whit's ghostly limitations that make for some of the film's funniest moments, especially as the always present Whit's clingy nature starts to wear on Clay's placid congeniality and general "roll with it" approach to just about everything.
Suffice to say that both Thomas and Tatum are absolutely spot-on perfect here. While I'm unfamiliar with either one in any meaningful way, The Civil Dead possesses a darkly humorous edge that appears to toy with the best and worst versions of both performers. The Civil Dead builds slowly and sets things up beautifully and patiently, Tatum's directorial framework extremely effective in setting an atmosphere of low-key dark humor that isn't nearly the buddy comedy one expects it to be early on.
Utopia has a knack for finding just the right films for its unique sensibilities and The Civil Dead is an other intelligent and inspired addition to the Utopia catalogue. More uncomfortably funny than laugh out loud, The Civil Dead benefits from the genuine chemistry between Thomas and Tatum and their willingness to surrender to the darker side of it.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic