The Powerful Reason David Harbour Doesn’t Talk in We Have a Ghost
When the rest of the family discovers they’re got a ghost as a housemate, they take to YouTube to profit on the found phenomena, exposing Ernest to the world and attracting the unwanted attention of a frazzled paranormal scientist (Tig Notaro), a famous TV medium (Jennifer Coolidge), and the entirety of the CIA. From there, it’s an avalanche of antics as Kevin and his neighbor Joy (Isabella Russo) fight to keep Ernest out of the CIA’s grasp.
The movie is in the vein of Amblin movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s, with parallels to that era of wholesome yet un-patronizing storytelling found strewn throughout. The clearest line of inspiration can be drawn to E.T., but there’s also some of Beetlejuice, Casper and even a dash of Back to the Future thrown in.
But the beating heart of the film is Harbour’s aptly named Ernest, whose friendship with Kevin blossoms in a way that’s both touching and sincere. His performance is 50 percent body language and 50 percent facial expressions. Nonetheless, the actor manages to create a rich, complex characterization without any vocalizations beyond some comical moans here and there. Whether Ernest is giving Kevin an encouraging wink to get him to make a move on Joy, or desperately searching the back of his mind to remember how he died, Harbour conveys everything he needs to without crossing the line into pantomime or saccharine sentimentality.
It’s truly rare to find a modern actor with the chops to pull something like this off. This is the type of acting Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Jackie Chan perfected, and Harbour proves he has as deep a skillset as anyone else working today. It makes sense—he majored in drama in college and made his professional acting debut on Broadway, so he’s more than familiar with using his body to tell a story. And he’s demonstrated his non-verbal chops onscreen as well.
Who could forget Hopper’s “death” in the finale of Stranger Things Season 3 when he sacrificed himself for the good of the group? The way he looks into Joyce’s eyes as the world implodes around him… his gentle smile tells the whole story.
In We Have a Ghost, Harbour brings that same tenderness, which as always is juxtaposed by his giant, gruff exterior. And in the third act, when he finally uncovers how he died and why he’s been trapped all this time, the sadness and regret scrawled on his face is heartbreaking. The movie wouldn’t have been well served if Ernest was given lines to say.