Ghosts… of the Civil Dead

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June 29, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

For the final installment of our prison feature we bring you the first film from Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat, who would years later go on to achieve some recognition for the elegiac western The Proposition and, more recently The Road, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s despairing, post-apocalyptic novel of the same title. As in those films, he works with Australian punk idol and balladeer Nick Cave, who co-wrote and composed the score for Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, penned The Proposition and provided the score and also scored The Road. And like The Road this film too is futuristic, making it unique among our selection of prison films. A title sequence from the prison log files establishes setting: a remote facility located somewhere in the feral deserts of Australia. We are told it houses the most deranged and dangerous convicts in the country.

We are introduced to a seemingly docile bloke by the name of Wenzil (David Field in what is clearly his first role), who, probably to the films detriment, quickly becomes the focus—Hillcoat will smartly shift focus away from him shortly to the individual inmates. He undergoes the standard initiation: sheared, shaved, dressed and thrown in to the lockup. He intuits that it’s best to keep his mouth shut in this place and as a result speaks very little throughout. Wenzil is brought up to speed by a chain-smoking veteran, a guy who seems to shepherd virgin inmates, advising him to “watch your back in here. Oy! Watch your back I said.”

The game rules of the prison established, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead largely lurches forward; its plot is loose (inconsequential really) and for a long time a string of surly vignettes provides the meager and much needed momentum. There’s no cohesive narrative, at least in the first act, to make it compelling. Hillcoat simply shows us the game and how it’s played, then moves from one cell soliloquy to the next, each presented as the thoughts of the various inmates. This device works quite well in this setting, highlighting as it does the alienation and forlornness (and in some cases balefulness) of its denizens. It also means character development without needless dialogue, something accomplished further with consistently placed prison journal entries describing some events too expensive for this shoot.

Through these vignettes, however, a plot does eventually emerge. By halfway the screws become suspect. They seem to be provoking the inmates to violence through various means. It begins with the confiscation and destruction of personal property (including a drug raid), profligate cavity searches and eventually taking their television sets as well. We are shown a table shot of various drugs and every manner of smoking and injecting device: various needles, pipes, lighters, spoons, etc. The digital log informs us that a man was brutally murdered (stabbed 72 times) in the outdoor recreation yards by two men… with the rumor that the administration gave orders for an aboriginal (black) to rec with two known black killers. They bring in psychos from another cellblock, including a cackling, obscenity spewing bastard played schizophrenically by Nick Cave (in a way the role is a perfectly logical extension of his stage persona with the Birthday Party and others). “Kill me! Kill me! Kill me! Come in here and fuckin’ try to kill me!” he screams from his cell, the director framing him against a wall with a smeared blood caricature of a penetrated woman behind his head.

One inmate even scolds the administration from the newly constructed indoor recreation area (read: chain-link cage) accusing them of intentionally inducing psychosis which makes one “become predatory… compulsive!” He continues, saying:

“Do you know what you’re doin here? Do ya? You are creating a lot of angry men is what you’re doing. And one day those men are gonna go out there… and that day those people, out there, are gonna pay for what you are doing in here. You remember that!”

It’s uneven but also disturbing, violent and visceral cinema. From Lilly, a long-haired man with a feminine frame who copes with prison life by assuming the role of a cross-dressing prostitute; to the clever system of note passing (attaching a folded note to one end of a string and finger flicking it under the cell door using centrifugal force to swing it to the adjacent cell); to the profligate use of heroin, the crude tattooing guns, the brutal beatings over territory and theft. In hindsight, though it may be a necessary bromide of the genre, it was wise of Hillcoat to establish the prison economy early (cigarettes, tattoos and sex being the most marketable commodities) for it is largely the deprivation of these luxuries that bears responsibility for driving the prisoners to desperation (and the plot forward).

“October staff reports indicate that 11 inmates required medical attention due to acts of self mutilation. Upwards of 30 inmates commenced hunger strikes and that several fires were lit within the prison.” – Prison log

It’s a very (at least seemingly) nihilistic portrait, a microcosm of a dystopian society. We are guided through, witness the deterioration of order and sanity culminating in a brutal murder… and then it’s forgotten. The conspiracy among the head screws and whoever else above them has apparently succeeded, the result of which is that the prison is to be destroyed and replaced with a much larger (and more expensive) one and five men are released (for no particular reason, or at least not perceived by me), including the lead. He returns to the “civilized” world, remarking mysteriously: “One man released so they can imprison the rest of the world.”

All in all, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead is untempered but it’s also audacious and eminently disturbing. With the filmmakers wanting for the purse they nevertheless crafted a gritty, brutally realistic portrait given what they had to work with. Aside wanting for a more compelling narrative this film falls short technically as well; the digital log readouts a banal attempt to transport us to the future for one. It doesn’t work, and the surprisingly bright, incongruous, Technicolor-like environs come off as shabby and hackneyed. Despite its numerous flaws, and the difficulty in viewing at times, it’s still somehow realistic and engaging (thanks largely I’m sure to its clever subtleties and the intimate plumbing of convicted minds) and rather remarkable for a first time director. Hillcoat would bide his time and wait 8 years before attempting another feature, and then 9 more after that. It would pay off in The Proposition, a far more technically polished and engrossing, but equally honest examination of violence in society.

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