One of the most shocking films to emerge out of the macabre Australian cinema, Ghosts…of the Civil Dead is uncomfortable viewing, which disappoints more than entertains.
Now famous for such projects as The Road and The Proposition, John Hillcoat’s debut feature is unsurprisingly grim. Ghosts is an allegorical, avant-garde take on privatised prisons. Rather than reshaping citizens for good, the dystopian institutions presented are unrelenting torture-houses. With mindless violence and perpetual risk of prisoner revolt, it’s all doom and gloom which is, excuse the pun, totally inescapable.
Working in a particularly reckless, loose style, Hillcoat’s direction could be at best described as expressionistic, and at worst tedious. Although this can be seen as a strong foretelling for his depressive later work, Ghosts doesn’t have any emotional attachment or central protagonist to guide us, hand in hand, through all the muck and voyeuristic torture presented.
Not just a directing first, Ghosts sees Australian musical doyen Nick Cave take his first credit as film co-writer. Unsurprisingly, the dialogue is sparse and black as night, but doesn’t have any of that acerbic lyricism familiar in his musical oeuvre. Not content with disappointing us there, Cave’s droning, abrasive score with frequent collaborator Mick Harvey is uninspired, AND THEN even a cranked, acting role can’t turn Cave into the Bad Seed we all know and love.
With images of blood, violence and sex dominating throughout, it’s in the final scene where Hillcoat really breaks free from the handcuffs when the prisoners perform hostile takeover; waiting with baited breath for the now-cowardly guards to gingerly step out of their hiding places. Much like this film, they should no better to stay in the shadows.