Ghost Town Anthology
Québecois filmmaker Denis Côté takes his time establishing the arresting premise of his new film, Ghost Town Anthology, even though the gist is right there in the (English-language) title. Set in the tiny town of Sainte-Irénée-les-Neiges, a place with the population of 215, the movie opens with a tragedy, as a series of wintry establishing shots unexpectedly gets invaded by the horrific sight of a car swerving off the road and crashing headfirst, at high speed, into a big pile of cinder blocks. Everyone who lives in the town knew the driver — Simon Dubé (Philippe Charette) — and Ghost Town Anthology spends its first half hour or so observing reactions to his death among family, friends, and passing acquaintances; mixing the collective response to sudden death with the frozen Canadian landscape. But then residents start hearing mysterious thumps in their homes, catching glimpses of strange figures. It’s from then where “Ghost Town” takes on another meaning.
Still, its important to state, this is by no means a horror film, despite a few disquieting aspects. Côté has adapted his screenplay from a novel by Laurence Oliver, but it nonetheless it still comes with the what have become the staples of his filmography: notable regional specificity and displays of insular communities. At the same time, Ghost Town Anthology comes with characters that are somewhat sketchily drawn. Members of Simon’s immediate family have the most cause to feel haunted by his death, yet are comparatively uninteresting (likely something lost in adaptation); that’s especially true of Simon’s father, Romuald (Jean-Michel Anctil), who leaves home shortly after the film begins and spends most of it wandering alone in the woods, generically distraught. More intriguing are the peripheral figures such as the town mayor (Diane Lavallée), who treats offers of help from outsiders with defensive hostility, and Adèle (Larissa Corriveau), the perpetually anxious “welfare girl” (as one neighbor refers to her), who’s the first person in town to notice that something extremely bizarre is going on.
The gradual, matter-of-fact way that Côté transforms Ghost Town Anthology into an actual ghost story is quite impressive. Initially, it’s Simon who appears to be silently lurking in the distance, but other “strangers” soon show up — not to threaten, exactly, but simply to take up space. What’s bigger is that this emerging phenomenon isn’t restricted to Sainte-Irénée-les-Neiges, as its happening throughout Quebec, albeit not in any of its major cities. That last detail, along with some on-the-nose dialogue throughout, makes the film’s ostensible subtext dispiritingly blunt: The ghosts symbolize the perceived futility of life in a “ghost town” like this one, which derived its economic sustainability from a mine that’s long since been closed. But other aspects — what becomes Adèle, in particular — are gratifyingly mysterious and open to interpretation, while Côté’s decision to shoot the entire movie handheld, but with mostly static compositions, creates a potent feeling of almost subliminal instability. Admittedly, those seeking actively frightening undead figures should look elsewhere. Then again, what’s more unnerving right now than people standing at least six feet away from you, not doing much of anything? With a palpable mysterious mood, Ghost Town Anthology might be a bit thin from a psychological standpoint but finds a solid lane on its metaphoric street.
Ghost Town Anthology is available to stream on Mubi
It’s a pretty large jump from playing Pablo Escobar (on the Netflix series Narcos) to embodying one of the most highly regarded men in the field of global diplomacy. And for Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, it’s clearly a responsibility he feels strongly: Firing decency and charisma on all cylinders, he gives Sergio Vieira de Mello — the storied United Nations diplomat killed by a truck bomb in Iraq in 2003 — as much soul as the movie around him will allow. Returning again and again to the mound of rubble in Baghdad where Viera de Mello and his associate, Gil Loescher (Brian F. O’Byrne), lie painfully pinned down, Sergio continually, sluggishly drowns its intriguing political material in blah sentiment. As two American soldiers (Garret Dillahunt and Will Dalton) tug ineffectually at the chunks of concrete that once formed the Canal Hotel, their fruitless rescue attempt gives Sergio time to muse in flashback over a life spent tirelessly championing the rights of the downtrodden.
An unwavering idealist whose humanitarian efforts earned him legendary status in global-diplomacy circles, Viera de Mello risks appearing a saint. And the director, Greg Barker (adapting his own 2009 documentary of the same title), flirts dangerously with lionizing. The greater problems with Craig Borten’s cloying screenplay, though, are its extreme earnestness — Sergio’s lengthy conversation with a female Timorese weaver is a big pit of sap — and the overemphasis on the love affair between the married Sergio and Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas), an alluring U.N. economist. They meet in East Timor, lock lips in a downpour, and their ensuing, soft-focus romance has the effect of smoothing away all the narrative grit or the sense of a cerebral knife-edge that Sergio walked with such skill. Even his meeting with the infamous Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary looks like just a friendly little chat.
Furthermore, the choppiness of the storytelling gives short shrift to the bombing and Sergio’s tense interaction with L. Paul Bremer III (Bradley Whitford), President George W. Bush’s representative in Iraq. Tasked with restoring order and enabling legal elections, Sergio and his team are appalled by what they view as the United States’ excessive use of force and human-rights violations. The two men symbolize the eternal push and pull between diplomacy and violence, and their relationship could have given the movie the intellectual heft it so badly needed, but instead its given a mere few minutes of screen time. Sergio can occasionally be an admiring movie. But it also can come off disjointed and slugging, as it muddles and weakens its political revelations with an oddly emphasized romance.
Sergio is available to stream on Netflix