‘The Civil Dead’ Review: Spirit in Disguise

In this gentle ghost story, an aimless photographer meets an old friend with an unusual secret.

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By Jeannette Catsoulis

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Sweet and shaggy and kind of sad, Clay Tatum’s “The Civil Dead” is a low-key buddy comedy in which only one of the buddies is alive. Even so, this isn’t a scary movie — the sole horror onscreen is the lead actor’s self-inflicted haircut — but an offbeat bromance with existentialist ambitions.

Tatum plays Clay, a schlubby freelance photographer in Los Angeles with a lackadaisical nature and a remarkably supportive wife (Whitney Weir) who urges him to do something productive while she takes a business trip. In response, Clay busies himself by running small-time financial scams, an endeavor that’s unexpectedly supercharged when he meets an old friend, Whit (Tatum’s co-writer, Whitmer Thomas). A onetime high-school hot shot whose heat cooled after graduation, Whit is now a failed actor who desperately needs a friend. He is also deceased, and invisible to everyone but Clay.

Gently discursive and virtually plotless, “The Civil Dead” is a walking-and-talking movie that finds uncommon humor in Whit’s need to be seen and Clay’s extreme discomfort with that responsibility. By turns irritating and charming, Whit is too persuasively pitiful to be rejected outright; yet as the two wander around the city and encounter a handful of other characters, their aimlessness too often causes the story to sag.

Despite this ambling vibe, “The Civil Dead” reaches a surprisingly satisfying conclusion. The movie’s lighting is warm and the soundtrack close to perfect, yet underneath lies a persistent melancholy, a pervasive sense of men not making it in a place where the true terror is loneliness. The ending will make you laugh, but don’t be surprised if it also makes you cry.

The Civil Dead
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In theaters.

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