You know that friend who sucks but not quite enough to officially de-barnacle them from your life? Now, imagine if that was the only person you could ever interact with ever again, possibly for all of eternity. If that doesn’t send a chilly shiver into your jiggly bits, congrats on your well-curated group chats.

This is the premise of “The Civil Dead,” which probably isn’t technically mumblegore but is close enough. Like, if you understand that term enough for it to have literally any weight at all, it should give you a good sense of what you’re in for. Writer/director/star Clay Tatum and writer/star Whitmer Thomas have made a low-fi, high-concept “comedy” so dry as to be dehydrated. It is funny. You will laugh. Right up until you don’t. Then you will retroactively question what it says about you that you were laughing earlier. Then you will take a long, hot shower and contemplate mortality and the nature of various lingering relationships. Now those previous quotation marks around “comedy” earlier make sense, huh?

Part of the mumblecore cinematic universe, the other MCU, is the requirement that everybody has to act, like, totally casual. Hence, it makes sense that Tatum plays a character named Clay, and Thomas plays a character named Whit. They are friends from way back. Well, maybe more like acquaintances. They haven’t really talked in some time until Clay bumps into Whit while out on a photo shoot. They shoot the shit and catch up a bit. When time comes to part ways, they can’t. Because Whit is dead and is now a ghost haunting Clay.

To be clear, although Whit has a big bag of issues, Clay is the suck friend described earlier. He is selfish and manipulative, resorting to conning desperate renters out of application fees to pay his own rent. He is dismissive of his wife. He has a stupid, stupid haircut that he knows is stupid but chose anyway, to intentionally be upsetting. He sucks. Whit is just kinda sad and lame. And he’s stuck with Clay. Maybe forever. For real, how is this not more terrifying than 100 “Conjuring” movies stacked on top of one another?

The bulk of the movie is just the two dolts dialoguing. Until both of them realize the problem they’re faced with. Whit needs Clay, the only person who can see him. Clay is pretty annoyed at having to be responsible for anybody in any way. It’s a brick wall they aren’t so much running towards as walk-and-talking into. They still somehow smash into that barrier at what feels like several hundred miles per hour.

“The Civil Dead” is sneaky. It operates within certain expectations of its laughable losers before inverting those expectations. Remarkably, upon reflection, the film is actually pretty explicit about just who these people are and where they will end up. It’s only hard to accept because the alternative is so much easier. That is to say, insofar as the movie has “a point,” it seems to be that the casual disregard, narcissism, and emotional microaggressions of alleged friends may be a mask for something we don’t want to admit about them. And our implicit support and enabling of them may say something not great about us.

Maybe it’s just the aftertaste of the most recent Marvel offering, but not knowing precisely how to feel after watching something clever and well-made is frightfully refreshing. You can squint and see how the premise here could be leveraged for a family friendly, four-quadrant franchise launch. It’s pretty great that, instead, “The Civil Dead” leaves you feeling icky. Hooray for existential dread!

Grade = B+

Other Critical Voices to Consider

Rendy Jones at Rendy Reviews says “Bolstered by the chemistry between Tatum and Thomas, ‘The Civil Dead’ is a refreshingly sharp, funny, and spooky buddy comedy. This millennial mumblecore comedy effectively explores toxic friendships from a new ghastly angle.”

Louisa Moore at Screen Zealots says “With observational humor and an original screenplay that’s perceptive about human nature, this slacker ghost story is a low-budget film that succeeds on many levels.”

Shelagh Rowan-Legg at Screen Anarchy says the film is “as awkwardly funny as it is disturbing and a few times quite frightening. You will definitely think twice about that bump in the night you heard, and might find yourself motivated to make some drastic life changes.”

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