Back in 1999, M. Night Shyamalan’s third feature The Sixth Sense posed an unnerving existential question: If you were a ghost, would you know it? 24 years later, Pete Ohs revisits that question with his own third feature Jethica, in which the dead don’t necessarily realize they’re dead, and where the audience isn’t privy to details on who’s dead and who isn’t until halfway through the film. We can guess, of course, but everyone in Jethica’s slim cast of characters exhibits one form of odd behavior or another: they’re withholding; they’re hard to read; they walk with a stiff gait, as if desperate to find a restroom. The film’s mystery runs deep.
The run time, however, does not. Jethica clocks in at a cool 70 minutes, and the first half’s setup, established through Ohs’ gliding, ambling craftsmanship, pays off for the second half. It’s nice being able to distinguish baffled wandering specters from flesh-and-blood people, but there’s a certain pleasure to the mystery Ohs establishes from the movie’s very first scene, where Elena (Callie Hernandez, who co-wrote with Ohs) bangs a stranger in his car, then spins him a macabre tale about that one time she accidentally killed a man with her Honda. (The moral of her story, kids: Don’t text and drive.)
Jethica is a circular movie. The plot and its framing device loop around on themselves. Ohs’ spiraled filmmaking removes us immediately from Elena’s post-coital confession, then takes us through a montaged window into her life. By choice, Elena stays isolated from others, save for hitchhikers she picks up on the snow-dusted road by her trailer. It’s a meager existence. Only occasional fill-up runs to the local gas station interrupt her solitude, and it’s on one such errand that she runs into Jessica (Ashley Denise Robinson, another one of Ohs’ co-writers), her old high school pal, whom she hasn’t spoken with in years. It’s a recipe for a joyful reunion, except that Jessica acts cagey and declines Elena’s offer of coffee and conversation. She gets back in her car, snacks in hand, fuel in the tank, and motors away.
But remember the loop. No sooner does she leave than Jessica immediately 180s back to the station, and before we can say “holy camera pans,” she opens up to Elena with the truth: She left California to escape her abusive, unhinged stalker, Kevin (Will Madden, also pulling double duty as—you guessed it—co-writer), and while she didn’t intend to stumble across Elena’s remote prairie abode, it’s a stroke of cheery fortune she did, because there’s no way in frozen hell Kevin will find her there. Then, Kevin finds her there.
Arguably, this is where Jethica really begins as a film, because there’s something clearly off about Kevin and his unlikely appearance—something other than the obvious. You expect a certain amount of twitchy disgruntlement from a guy whose relationship philosophy can be summed up as “if I can’t have you, no one can.” All the same, he shouldn’t be there, and Ohs playfully dares us to wonder why, and how, he is; why Jessica keeps several air fresheners hanging from her rear view mirror; why Elena’s staying at her grandma’s place, a million miles away from civilization in any direction you might pick. What’s especially clever about the secrets these characters keep from one another, and which Ohs keeps from his audience, is the absence of lying. Jessica, Elena, and Kevin are exactly who they say they are or who we expect them to be; there are just a few teensy key facts about each left neglected in Jethica’s first act.
A movie about a young woman fleeing from a potentially violent man doesn’t sound like one with much wiggle room for its tone. But Ohs’ filmmaking is seemingly invigorated by the circumstances of Jethica’s production. The film was shot during the COVID-19 pandemic; this explains, among other things, the sense of scope Ohs captures in his New Mexico location while working as his own cinematographer, as well as the spiritual distance characters experience even when they’re in close proximity. Ohs, Hernandez, Robinson, Madden, and Andy Faulker, the fifth and final member of the film’s writers’ bench, tinker with genre and atmosphere, finding humor (albeit bleak) in the horror innate to ghost stories, and in the intersection between what tickles the funny bone and what haunts the soul, they find something miraculous: Mercy.
Very few horror movies, and frankly very few movies in general, can claim a script like Jethica’s, which confronts the most awful, and awfully mundane, actions a man can commit with curiosity and pity buttressed by natural judgment. Instead of patronizing Elena and Jessica with droll didactic bullshit ripped from a Twitter thread while gawking at their victimhood, Ohs and the gang deliberately pick apart the abuse dynamic driving the film’s plot. They do not treat Kevin as a boogeyman caricature. They do not filter Jessica’s fear through a half-baked metaphor for “trauma.” They live in her experience and consider it from every angle, and every emotion, possible, and their gentle unpacking of this experience dovetails with the aesthetic: Slow, methodical, unhurried and unfussed.
Jethica’s gradual style is occasionally disrupted by Evil Dead-style tracking shots; the combination allows dread to build on paranoia, while the minor Raimi homage also opens the door for unexpected bursts of black comedy. The level of insight Ohs and his collaborators invest in their writing is echoed in the construction, particularly how it closes the loop Elena kicks off in her lover’s backseat. Jethica is impressive as a feat of economy—there’s a lot of movie packed into that 70 minutes—and miraculous as an act of empathy rolled up in a spooky, constitutionally American ghost fable, where the lost souls wandering the shoulder of far-flung highways may really be that, and where a simple traffic sign gains new meaning contextualized with Ohs’ thoughts on death: “Pass with care.”
Director: Pete Ohs
Writer: Pete Ohs, Callie Hernandez, Ashley Denise Robinson, Will Madden, Andy Faulkner
Starring: Callie Hernandez, Ashley Denise Robinson, Will Madden, Andy Faulkner
Release Date: January 13, 2023
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.