As an accomplished character actor and leading man, David Harbour has just about done it all in his career. But his latest role as Ernest the Ghost in Netflix’s We Have a Ghost is unlike any character he—or almost any other modern actor—has ever attempted. The gimmick is this: Harbour has no lines. He doesn’t speak once in the entire movie.
Actors lend their voices to movies without showing their faces all the time, but rarely does it happen the other way around for a leading performance in the 21st century. The question is, why make a movie in which one of its most recognizable stars on Netflix doesn’t say a word?
The answer is the same for any question about good artistic choices: Because it makes the story better.
Speaking of the story, it revolves around the Presley family, who’s just moved into an old house that might be haunted. Okay… it’s obviously super, super haunted. So much so that when teenager Kevin (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) encounters a ghost in the attic named Ernest—Harbour as a specter who can’t talk and doesn’t remember anything about his life or death—he’s not surprised in the slightest.
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.
Anthony Mackie plays Kevin’s attention starved father who talks incessantly, a stark and deliberate contrast to Ernest. Director Christopher Landon has said in the press that he wanted to make a movie about fatherhood, and Mackie and Harbour both paint moving portraits of fathers in crisis, as polar opposite as they may be on the surface.
Because he doesn’t speak, it invites us to feel what he feels. He doesn’t tell Kevin about his pain, his happiness, or his yearning. He shows him, and we in turn are compelled to meet him halfway. Harbour elicits compassion and empathy here, which isn’t easy to do with dialogue, let alone in complete silence.