Two great staples of the horror genre are risk and restraint. Speaking to the latter, the alien was always scarier when you didn’t get a good look at it, and what’s in the mist is more frightening before you make your way inside the cloud. What scares us most is in our minds, and imagining the fate of facing the unknown is often more scarring than seeing it first-hand.
What drives that fear is risk. Whether we’re merely worried about one precious character dying or an entire cast getting picked off one by one, risk elevates the stakes. Take, for instance, when not only a father is at risk but his whole family. Instinctively, we care about the kids. We care about their mother. We care about the dad, sure, but more about the innocent than the guilty — nine times out of 10 the children are only paying for the sins of their parents.
“Ozark” puts that family at risk, and the blame lies squarely with the parents. The children’s presence necessitates critical restraint during the series’ most horrifying moments, which brings us to the third heat fueling the new Netflix drama: realism. When you believe this family exists and you believe the threat is real, a true horror story takes form.
“Ozark” begins as a tale of domestic stasis sent suddenly into overdrive. Jason Bateman plays Marty Byrde, a financial analyst living in the suburbs of Chicago, who’s about to learn a couple of life-changing secrets. One involves his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), a former political campaign coordinator and current depressed mother. Her character is complicated, often too eagerly bossed around or made into a point of pity, but Linney is excellent throughout.
The other secret is imperative to the overall plot. Without saying exactly what goes down, Marty, Wendy, and their children, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), are sent to start a new life in the Lake of the Ozarks, a tourist-driven community in rural Missouri where a number of shady business dealings seem to be driving the local economy.
Luckily, business is Marty’s bread and butter. An expert in his field and a natural penny-pincher, Marty’s obsessive understanding of business and finance is used to illustrate the difficulty, rather than the impossibility, of what he’s set out to do. He needs to launder an incredible amount of money in a short time period, and we believe it’s doable because of the specificity given to his language, actions, and general business dealings.
Though that framing device is cleverly utilized, it’s not all Money Laundering 101. “Ozark” slows down a touch after a rapid-fire start. The premiere is gripping, and each hour opens with four symbols slowly appearing inside the letter “o,” all of which foreshadow events to come. There are even more accomplished formal structures in later episodes, but “Ozark” also makes time for quick, fun cons and darkly comic moments; both of which bring out the best in Bateman’s snarky side. Always an excellent wiseass, Bateman even makes Marty’s caustic attacks purposeful. He’s driven, he’s got to act fast, and he’s both a victim and someone worthy of blame. The role asks a lot of its star, and Bateman is both the perfect fit and a shrewd interpreter of Marty’s many internal conflicts.
Ultimately, the series feels grounded, but it can also feel a bit dirty. Between the strip clubs, the sex tapes, and the nasty business driving the story, the lakeside drama occasionally hooks its audience like a worm on the end of a fishing line. The camera holds a second too long on an uncomfortable moment or captures an act that should’ve been spoken. Squirm as you might, you’re likely pinned for good.
If not, this kind of overindulgence in depravity might break certain viewers. But the nasty and the necessary do overlap. Predominantly directed by Bateman, who helms the first and last two episodes (including a nearly feature-length finale), “Ozark” is obsessed with the idea of being overwhelmed by darkness. We see that in the story and the composition, thanks to the ominously overcast look of each scene: a marine blue washes over most frames, as if a thunderstorm is always one rain drop away from washing everyone away.
This constant, imposing, offscreen presence ties nicely into the aforementioned horror vibe, but what we do see transpire is just as essential as what we don’t. Bateman, who also serves as executive producer, shows us just enough appalling violence to set a precedent. After seeing it once, it’s obvious it could happen again, and that possibility makes future moments unbearably tense. Even when the worst is avoided, you’re asked to imagine it long enough for the image, no matter how awful, to stick in your brain. Even though series creator Bill Dubuque and showrunner Chris Mundy don’t show it, they’ve already gone there.
“Ozark” doesn’t just toe the line between obscenity and drama; it walks right on top of the line, stands on it, and stares at you until you beg it to relent. More often than not, the show does — unlike the cartel lords and drug dealers it depicts. The series regularly finds a way to highlight the humanity in a story of inhuman acts, and knows when to turn away from an act too vile to witness. But you will never forget that look, the one that says, “We know what we’re not doing, and so do you.” It’s not a bluff. It’s not a false promise. It’s a knowledge of life’s true terrors, imparted without experiencing them first-hand.
“Ozark” Season 1 premieres Friday, July 21 exclusively on Netflix.