November 21, 2007

The Mist (11/21/07)

Lettergrade: C

The Mist is a disturbing meditation on the nature of human fear, dressed in the trappings of an old school monster movie. Several scenes in it are very good, but unfortunately they are interspersed with many others that don't really work. It pains me to say that as director Frank Darabont previously wrote and directed two exceptional pictures of the 90s: The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Like those, The Mist is based on a Stephen King story, but where the previous films had more humanistic ideas at their core, this one has a large supernatural element and is primarily out to scare. Although the picture does have some good freaky scenes, the results by and large are fairly mixed.

Darabont's great talent, as demonstrated in his previous movies, lies in creating screen-characters who are complex but flawed versions of classic movie archetypes. Likewise, he is a master at lacing grim subject material with dashes of ribald humor; doubly effective not only because the laugh is unexpected, but also due to the fact that it creates what I think of as a "full-spectrum" experience. Life situations are so rarely as monotone as many movies would have you believe, and Darabont (or is it King?) knows this: He's good at taking beats here and there to find the bittersweet humor in the drama, and usually both work better as a result. It is no coincidence that The Mist is at its best during the character moments. The scenes where fear and panic drive human characters to do irrational things are by and large a lot scarier than the scenes where CG monsters show up.

But I'm getting ahead of myself... As the picture starts, Thomas Jayne is a commercial artist living quietly with his wife and son in upstate Maine, a favorite region of Stephen King to wreak supernatural havoc. His family wakes one morning to find that a storm has damaged their house and knocked out the phones and electricity. Jayne grabs his son (and his asshole neighbor), and heads to the local super-market to stock up on supplies, barely noticing the armada of military trucks and fire engines that frantically race in the other direction. While in the store, a mysterious mist rolls in and completely obscures the parking lot. Anyone who ventures out into the haze comes back battered and terrified, or worse, reappears in bloody pieces. With no clear way out, the group of 70 or so settles in and waits for help to arrive.

Darabont quickly establishes ways in which the group creates confrontational divisions among itself; be it year-round residents vs. city folk there on vacation, well-educated people vs. drop outs, and somewhat obliquely, conservative versus liberal. Much of the movie, however, focuses on a terrifying Marcia Gay Harden, as a religious zealot who preaches that the ongoing events are part of God's wrath. Although generally reviled by the others when the mist first rolls in, the appearance of large locust-like creatures (as well as the other supernatural beasts that turn up) work in tandem with her ever-ready Old Testament quotes to convince a small, panicky mob that she is a profit and had foreseen it all.

Religious extremism of any kind often freaks me out, and I was genuinely unnerved when Harden started rattling off some of the Bible's more fire-and-brimstone themed passages. Her performance, along with Toby Jones - as the store's resourceful asst. manager... pragmatic and level-headed in many ways that Harden is not - are the two most compelling in the picture. Unfortunately, however, as well-conceived as the Jayne, Harden, and Jones characters are, many of the others are a bit broadly drawn or conveniently display stupidity and poor-judgement in the interest of allowing the plot to move forward. Again, it is a tome on fear and the irrational things it leads people to do, but something about the way our characters in this movie behave consistently rings false.

One other thing to note is that the musical score, while largely absent for the first half of the picture, is among the most obnoxious I've heard in any movie during the second half. It mainly consists of a large church organ playing while a middle-eastern vocalist wails away. The art direction, cinematography, and editing are all great, but there needs to be an industry-wide ban on ever allowing this dude to record a note of music ever again.

In the end, however, I did not despise The Mist, but other than a few bright spots here and there, I didn't think it was all that noteworthy either. Were the film a straight emulation of the 50s monster movie, rather than a picture that tries to do more and say something while merely paying homage, some of the dopier scenes might not take the air out the proceedings quite the same way. It's a shame because Darabont has done better work in the past, and I'm sure he'll do better work in the future.

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