Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Movies: Cliché misty for me.

Near the end of Frank Darabont's 2007 King adaptation (his fourth), The Mist, a small gang of humans on the run from a interdimensional spill of Lovercraftian beasties watches in stunned, mute awe as a several story-tall monster, covered in tentacles and towering well above them, walks over the road with a disinterested majesty. The beast is so large that it serves as a minor eco-system. The monster is surrounded by a nervous flock of symbiotic other-place birds, like nightmare versions of the Spur-winged Plovers that pick the teeth of alligators for sustenance. The beast is never named and the characters that witness it watch the great monster pass in a deep and silent wonder. They are pondering what the very existence of the this gigantic monster, and by extension the almost unfathomable shift its presence in this world represents, means for their immediate future and the broader future of humanity. In their silence, you're invited to ponder this as well. The quiet opens up space for viewers to think and be effected.

Unfortunately, the scene is a fluke. The image of the monster and the silence that greets it drives home the lesson that the power of big ideas is amplified when audience members are allowed to tackle the implications themselves in a space opened-up for them by the director. Acknowledge the giant's existence and let the audience think about it. By that's not Darabont's way. Instead, characters preach (literally), debate, toss out large chunks of exposition, and generally cannot let any incident or event pass without letting audience members know how to feel and think about it. The end result is that something genuinely cool gets buried under a mudslide of ham-fisted pop-sociology.

The Mist is 70 minutes of truly excellent classic monster movie magic. Sadly, it's total running time is just over two hours.

The central plot device of the The Mist is the classic Beau Geste situation that's a cornerstone of modern horror. Trap a microcosm of America in location and surround them with monsters. Keep adding on the pressure until the tribes either learn to work together or their lack of cooperation tears them apart.

In this case, three loose tribes of small town Americans get caught in a supermarket after an unexplained rash of creepy beasts traps them within. The first tribe, which we'll call the Reasonable People, is led by David, an artist who gets caught in the supermarket with his young son. David is played by a Thomas Jane who seems to be giving us a weird Christopher Lambert impersonation. The second tribe, which we'll call the African Americans, is led by an out-of-towner lawyer named Brent. Apparently Brent feels that the town's (almost entirely white) has a non-racially tinged problem with him because of the color of his license plate. He feels that, because he's not a native (and not because he's black), the natives team up against him. This is especially important in that he feels he lost a property dispute case to (the very white) David because of anti-outsider (but not racist) sentiments. The other members of Brent's tribe are also black, but that's a coincidence. They're all outsiders, apparently. But isn't that, you might ask, an indication of some sort of race divide? No. Of course not. There's no race issue in this movie. (Which is why it is okay that Brent's tribe dies first. Because there's nothing racial about any of this.) Finally, there's the tribe of religious nuts lead by the dubiously Biblical Mrs. Carmody.

Visually, the movie is a delight. Darabont ably handles the rapid tonal shifts between crisp realism within the supermarket and the mist-shrouded monsterland outside. Furthermore, despite the frantic action and heavy CGI, Darabont manages to squeeze in some nice visual touches that give the otherwise wild premise hints of real-world grounding. In one shot, for example, we get a bird's-eye view of the shop workers struggling to hold on to a rope that's being dragged out the front door. Darabont's shot let's us see the black scuff marks of their shoes on the supermarket's blue title floor: futile little smears of effort. There were many complaints regarding the CGI, but I dug the monster designs. Especially effective were those designs that managed to sneak human traits, like a full mouth of person-like teeth, on to some beast, like a spider, that just shouldn't have them. Finally, the action sequences had a sort reckless anarchy that drove home the characters mad, trashing efforts to survive.

The acting is uneven, mainly due to the absurd demands of Darabont's heavy-handed script. Marcia Gay Harden manages to breath some sinister life into her Mrs. Carmody, revealing the naked drive for power and wounded ego that truly fuel her Old Testament fire-and-brimstone faith. That nuance saves an otherwise stereotypical "all Christians are a pussyhair's breadth away from going Inquisition on ya" character. Otherwise, the actors are saddled with characters so bizarrely touchy, so weirdly ready to fight rather than cooperate, that they speak in editorials. This tendency to lecture is made unintentionally comic by the characters' habit of tossing off the "talking point" as it is just occurred to them. Typical is the scene in which character, literally walking out the door to face his almost certain doom, sticks his head back in to deliver a zinger about God and tolerance to Mrs. Carmody as if it had suddenly just occurred to him.

And there's plenty to zing about. Class conflict, religious intolerance, tribalism, and the thin line between civilization and savagery are all explored in this film – and don't worry that you'll miss these themes, the movie will be sure to tell you, ad tedium, when they're being explored. Sadly, for all the time and effort spent highlighting these issues, the film's conclusions are laughably trite. Which is more insulting, that working collar class resentments are dismissed as the sad byproduct of their own stupidity or that Frank Darabont thinks we need to be told that class conflict is bad. What's Darabont's position on religious fanaticism? Well sir, he's not for it. No, siree bob, not at all. The film concludes that, basically, white middle-class liberals - with their essentially good hearts, their love of family, and their lack of bitterness about perceived slights - are the last sane people on the Earth.

A recent review of The Mist favorably compared the film to Romero "at his best." The Romero comparison half right, but it's not Romero's best tendencies as a filmmaker that one is reminded of. There's two versions of The Mist available. One's in black and white. Though, honestly, the film would be better served by cutting it up in flick that ditched the preaching and emphasized the monsters.

4 comments:

wiec? said...

one thing from the the short story that really stuck with me was the scene with the giant 'bug' you brought up in the opening paragraph. eerie and the mind numbing hopelessness the characters all felt really made for some memorable text. a bit fumbled in the movie.

like you i sorta kinda liked the movie but it left me a bit flat toward the end. the open ended hopelessness at the end of the book would have been better i feel than the surprise ending within an ending i saw in the movie.

i don't remember but when Jane sees what he sees at the very end does he let out a huge "noooooooo!' after he discovers he was a bit hasty and jumped the gun (4 times too early) so to speak?

CRwM said...

wiec,

I don't remember if he actually screams "no" or just wails - but he does the whole and complete fall to the knees lament. Though, weirdly, he then seems to be perfectly calm-faced again when he sees the first "who will help my children" lady who somehow survived the whole thing.

AndyDecker said...

I don´t get Hollywood´s burning need to rewrite endings. The whole "shocking" and new end of The Mist - compared with the story - is absolutly unbelievable. Sure, storys have to be interpreted and adapted for a movie. But it is a difference if you change storylines or are tacking on an end with negates everything you said about your characters - and then dumb it further down with an EC Comics twist.

CRwM said...

Andy,

I must admit that I wasn't familiar with King's original ending, so I had no particularly strong feelings about it. The hanging ending of King's story has, I think, a more unsettling impact.

I suspect that Darabont felt that he would have been raked over the coals if he'd dragged us around for two hours and didn't give us a more definitive close. I see his possible motive, but disagree with the move.

Honestly, the ending was, in my opinion, the least of the film's troubles.