Directed by Australian filmmaker Richard Gray (Summer Coda) and shot on location around Livingstone, Montana in the northwest of the United States, Broken Ghost is a mystery drama that combines a lot of interesting elements but ultimately fails to bring them all together in an entirely convincing way. The screenplay by Abe Pogos, who has extensive experience as a television writer in Australia and also penned Gray’s previous film Sugar Mountain, draws on the familiar premise of a family relocating to the country to escape events of the past, only to find that everything does not quite work out as planned, territory mined by another Australian filmmaker in Sean Byrne with 2014’s The Devil’s Candy.
Having been forced to flee their previous life for reasons we don’t discover until later in the piece, artist William (Nick Farnell), his pharmacist wife Samantha (Scottie Thompson) and their teenage daughter Imogen (Autry Haydon-Wilson) arrive at their new picturesque rural abode in search of a fresh start. The obligatory strange noises and bumps in the night put the family on edge before William uncovers a mural that alludes to the tragedy that befell the previous occupants of the house. Following a foot-in-mouth moment from Samantha on the very first day at her new school, Imogen immediately finds herself in the sights of Brandon (Devon Bagby), whose subsequent delving serves as the conduit through which we learn of the event that sent the family in search of a fresh start and also sheds light on Imogen’s near-blindness. Whilst Imogen’s condition (which I won’t give away here) is a unique twist, the problem lies with the fact that, whilst the event that triggered their retreat to the country is understandably humiliating for Imogen, it hardly seems serious enough to justify such an upheaval.
Meanwhile, as the strange goings-on in the house escalate (lights and televisions turning themselves on and off, noises emanating from the attic) to the point where Samantha and Imogen want to leave, William finds himself awash with creativity and determined to stay. Once the actual source of the disturbances is revealed, it is both surprising and somewhat hard to swallow, resulting in a less than satisfactory conclusion to proceedings. The biggest hurdle to overcome in embracing the film is the fact that the characters are so unlikeable, with all of the male characters in particular presented as decidedly unpleasant. William does not treat Samantha or Imogen particularly well and his resentment towards the latter surfaces in a moment of rage, while Brandon is simply a one-dimensional bully and even Eugene (Brandon Lessard), who initially presents as a somewhat decent guy, has morphed into somebody altogether reprehensible by the end. Throw in the lecherous bartender and a mysterious stranger to whom Samantha finds herself drawn and there is not a good bloke to be found.
Of the performers, it is the newcomers who fare best with both Haydon-Wilson and Lessard (to a lesser extent given his lack of screen time) making a good fist of their first ever roles. As the couple whose relationship is straining under the weight of events, Farnell and Thompson lack conviction in their portrayals and several scenes suffer from a lack of emotional resonance, whether in moments of tension or affection; shortcomings that are perhaps more attributable to the screenplay than the performances. However, Gray and cinematographer John Garrett have parlayed the miniscule budget into something that is visually impressive, taking full advantage of the landscape and incorporating some unique camera angles and movement to create a sense of disorientation and menace. Despite such efforts though, ultimately Broken Ghost suffers from the fact that neither the characters nor the circumstances in which they find themselves are convincing enough to keep you invested in their plight.