The Civil Dead
by Christie Robb
Emotional honesty is hard. But it’s even harder when you are someone’s entire social world.
In The Civil Dead, deadbeat photographer Clay finds himself alone for the weekend when his wife goes out of town. He’d promised her he’d do something productive instead of sitting around drinking beer, so he goes out to snap some photos. While taking a photo of a graffitied mattress abandoned on the side of the road, he runs into an old acquaintance from back home, Whit, whom he’s been ghosting since the dude moved out to Los Angeles. They chit-chat a bit, each clearly lying about their successes in the art and film industries. After an awkward night together in which Clay gets hammered and Whit spends the night, Clay tries to get the guy to leave. But Whit won’t.
[Spoiler Ahead. Read At Your Own Risk.]
See, Whit is dead and Clay is the only person who is able to see him.
Unlike other movie ghosts, Whitt can’t move physical objects or float through walls so he’s mostly just wandering around the streets of LA, and he hates walking. He’s stoked to find that Clay has “the shining” and is totally psyched to spend the rest of Clay’s life together and then pal around once Clay shuffles off his mortal coil.
The Civil Dead is a unique entry in the spooky dark comedy genre. The horror comes not from the paranormal, but from the very mundane social awkwardness of someone trying to disentangle themselves from a relationship they never wanted in the first place while the other desperately clings on.
Directed by Clay Tatum, written and starring Tatum and Whitmer Thomas, the two get a lot of mileage out of a simple concept. But it’s a chill kind of milage. There’s no solving the mystery of Whit’s death or helping him step into the light. Instead, they explore the possible advantages of having an invisible friend, the boredom inherent in a life after death, and just how hard it is to communicate honestly with another grown-up. Tatum’s misanthropic loser is charming, but Thomas really shines, giving a pretty subtle performance as he cycles between submissive affability, existential despair, fear and rage. I, for one, will never feel quite as comfortable in a vacation rental again.