The debut feature can be a frightening proving ground for new filmmakers. Filmmaker Anthony Z James, despite any limitations regarding gear or budget, forgoes this worry with Ghost standing as an impressive debut. Sporting a charming DIY approach, Ghost is an interpersonal day in the life of ex-con Tony Ward (Anthony Mark Streeter) attempting to restart his life after a ten year stint in prison. Tony wastes no time getting back to the real thing that matters, his family. Conor (Nathan Hamilton), Tony’s son, has flown the nest and is reluctant to let Tony back into his life following the brutal removal of a father from his childhood.
Tony’s wife Valerie (Emily Happisburgh) isn’t interested in retreading old ground. With seemingly all his bridges broken, it’s only a matter of time before Tony’s past creeps round the corner. At the forefront of the marketing for Ghost is the embrace of its guerilla aesthetic, shot on an iPhone using the Filmic PRO app (made famous by Sean Baker and Steven Soderburgh’s recent efforts), an anamorphic lens and a DJI Osmo mobile phone gimbal. Supported by its naturalist color grading, James’s cinematography is carefully restrained and held back with minimal coverage to allow its actors full control of the canvas. Letting each scene flow with an almost fly-on-the-wall feel reinforced the feeling that I was allowed permission to see Tony’s journey, rather than just experience it.
Ghost is at times a truly gorgeous testament to the power of mobile filmmaking, with James demonstrating his flare for creating beautiful moments with a minimalist setup. However, there are some technical falters that did stand out within the first fifteen minutes, particularly to do with the noticeably artificial sound design for nature in exterior locations. The saving grace of the audio production is Nikolaj Polujanov’s sombre guitar laden score. It never outstays it welcome but is always a treat when it appears.
James’ approach to Ghost’s world can unfortunately succumb to tired stereotypes we have seen time and time again in other mafioso tales. What keeps these ideas palatable is the lead performances from Streeter and Hamilton. Streeter’s Tony is without a doubt the highlight of the film, breathing a tactile sense of determination to get back on track. Tony’s exchanges with Conor in more heated moments comes across with the right amount of ferocity and genuine care for his son, that it conjures a melancholic atmosphere to proceedings when relating it to my own experiences.
As the day goes on, a colourful host of side characters drop in and out with interweaving connections as Tony’s underworld becomes clearer and his crimes become more mysterious. Whilst these characters are the main culprits when it comes to the redundant stereotypes that appear (a coke snorting mob boss, a jumped up enforcer), Tony and Conor’s joint effort to solve their problem still feels earnest. The theme of fatherhood is heavily prevalent and it’s refreshing to see it handled with a kitchen sink realism aspect.
Scaling down these events to what seems like one day adds another layer of urgency to Tony’s future. Ghost isn’t interested in attempting to go down the route of a melodramatic endeavour to rekindle Tony’s soul, but instead an insight into a man who’s trying to empty the skeletons from his closet before it’s too late. Whilst those skeletons may come back to haunt Tony eventually in the films claustrophobic climax, the journey there shows us London through a lens that feels voyeuristic than it does cinematic. The streets of Chinatown are bustling with tourists and civilians alike, but James chooses to put his camera within inches of Tony’s face, tracking his movement with militant intent.
For a debut feature, Ghost is an excellent example of the “make your movie” mantra that up-and-coming filmmakers like Jim Cummings shout about to the Twitter heavens. Putting the spotlight on two superb performances in Streeter and Hamilton, this is a rousing commentary on fractured parenting. Ghost is hopefully the start of another growing voice within the British indie scene with James’s can-do attitude spreading an infectious charm through his career.
Ghost is known as Ex-Con: Redemption in the US and is available on Amazon Prime (US) now.
Directed by: Anthony Z. James
Written by: Anthony Z. James
Cast: Anthony Mark Streeter, Nathan Hamilton, Russell Barnett