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Austin Film Festival Review: “Ghosts of the Ozarks” Uses Fresh Techniques for a Decent Story

Written by: Adam Vaughn | October 26th, 2021

Film poster: “Ghosts of the Ozarks”

Ghosts of the Ozarks (Matt Glass/Jordan Wayne Long, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.

Ghosts of the Ozarks immediately entertains with unique, well-written characters that the viewer will enjoy following. Secluded to the rest of the world, the Ozarks seem harmonious to young Dr. James McCune (Thomas Hobson, Stone Fruit), who is invited by his uncle Mathew (Phil Morris, HBO Max’s Doom Patrol) to be the new town physician. But as James learns more about the town’s inhabitants, he learns that surrounding the utopia is a dark, monstrous entity. Ghosts lurk outside the town’s walls, and the death toll reflects it! Can James help save the town from its own vices and secrets, or will the “ghosts of the Ozarks” prevail?

James McCune makes for a humble, intelligent, and inquisitive protagonist, played to perfection by Hobson. McCune’s kick-ass love interest, Annie (Tara Perry, 12 Hour Shift) delivers a strong female role, and ultimately launches the major conflict of the story, as Annie questions the town’s motives in light of her father’s disappearance years ago. Mathew McCune, a seemingly loving uncle with sinister secrets, grips the audience, and Tim Blake Nelson (Old Henry) gives a comical and compassionate performance as Torb, the town’s blind bartender. Accompanied by equally as captivating turns from David Arquette (also 12 Hour Shift), Angela Bettis (12 Hour Shift, again), and WWE’s Joseph Ruud, Ghosts of the Ozarks’ greatest strength is in following its characters through an aesthetically pleasing 1800s production design, including grizzly imagery to represent the “ghosts” that are outside (even if the results are disappointing).

l-r: Tara Perry and Thomas Hobson in GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS ©HCT Media

Unfortunately, Ghosts of the Ozarks’ downfall is that it follows too closely to ideas before it. The first and foremost obvious inspiration is M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 The Village, where a small town is confined (essentially imprisoned) by the propaganda of ostensible monsters lurking in the woods. This film copies the same concept a little too closely. The clichéd plot twist leads to an entertaining but equally trite showdown between good and evil, turning a once-clever setup into a conventional Hollywood outcome. While viewers already engaged in the characters will cheer for the heroes and boo for the villains, the artistic appeal drops in value by playing it safe.

Still, directors Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long (Squirrel) never fail to keep their premise interesting with their visually stunning sequences (specifically, I found the red smoke in the woods to signal the arrival of the ghosts to be a brilliant horror convention) and believable dynamics between characters. Seldom do directors decide to combine a period piece with the addition of fictional fantasy and thrills, and when it is done effectively, Ghosts of the Ozarks stands out.  While its execution tends to disappoint, the overall experience is one worthy of viewing.

l-r: Tim Blake Nelson and Thomas Hobson in GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS ©HCT Media

Adam Vaughn is a graduate of the Film & Moving Image program at Stevenson University, with a focus in Cinematography and Production. He also has a minor in Theater and Media Performance. Adam works as a freelance photographer and videographer, focusing his craft on creating compelling photographic and cinematic imagery. Adam is excited to join the Film Festival Today team and explore the world of cinema and visual arts.

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