The Civil Dead: Hurts to Be Alive, by David Bax
The Civil Dead has a high concept premise but it eases into it so naturally and gradually that I won’t spoil it here. But I bring it up to point out what a pleasant surprise it is that a movie with one major big idea also takes such care to flesh out the specifics of its characters’ lives and their past and present situations. For instance, when we first meet Clay (Clay Tatum, star, director and co-writer), he is broke. He’s not a man who lives in chronic poverty; he most likely comes from a middle class background and his wife, Whitney (Whitney Weir), seems to make money. It’s just that, at the moment, he is flat broke. And the screenplay makes hay, in the early going out of his desperate attempts to scrounge up cash. Dramatizing (or comedicizing, as the case may be) actual money problems without resorting to histrionics is exceedingly rare in American movies.
Tatum also gets the specifics of Los Angeles right. It’s not just that it’s fun to see characters ride the Gold Line (sorry, the L Line is what we’re supposed to call it now). I mean, it definitely is fun; yes, there are people in Los Angeles who use public transit! But The Civil Dead also uses Clay’s financial troubles to touch on the reality of renting in an increasingly expensive city.
Beyond that, there are psychological and emotional specifics set to work here. Seeking to reignite his artistic passion while Whitney is out of town, our sporadically employed photographer protagonist goes on a walk with his camera and, instead of inspiration, finds an old hometown friend, Whit (co-screenwriter Whitmer Thomas), who has, unbeknownst to Clay, moved to Los Angeles. Here, The Civil Dead makes manifests two truths. With Clay, we witness the awkwardness of someone who’s left his old life behind and started a new one having to attempt to find common ground with someone from a past he no longer feels connected to. And, with Whit, who has lived here for months without making new friends, we face the painful reality that Los Angeles is a brutal place to be alone.
It’s after the introduction of Whit that The Civil Dead, true to its somewhat punny title, starts to introduce elements of horror. Part of that is because the lonely Whit attempts to attach himself to Clay in a sort of Single White Female type move. The other part is the thing I’m not going to tell you about.
Just know that Thomas’ performance is the keystone to the entire conceit of the movie. Without making any huge changes in his behavior, he turns Whit’s sadness and desperation from sympathetic to menacing and sometimes back again.
Tatum is terrific too. There’s so much about The Civil Dead that, on paper, would sound insufferable; white, male comedians make navel gazing indie film with a cutesy title and premise. But, both as director and star, Tatum has the confidence and wisdom to make Clay kind of an irredeemable asshole. And the whole movie is better and more mature for it.