the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Mist













AMANDA
You don’t have much faith in humanity, do you?

DAN
None whatsoever.

AMANDA
I can’t accept that. People are basically good. Decent. My God, David, we’re a civilized society!

DAVID
Sure, as long as the machines are working and you can dial 911. You take those things away, toss people in the dark, scare the shit out of them — no more rules — and you’ll see how primitive they get.

DAN
Scare people bad enough, you’ll get them to do anything. They’ll turn to whatever promises a solution. Grasp at any straw.


Going into The Mist, I never thought I’d see a more nihilistic film this year than No Country For Old Men. Boy was I wrong.

Based on a novella by Stephen King, The Mist is the story of a small, rural town in Maine that is enveloped in a pervasive, impenetrable white fog within which horrific, carnivorous creatures undetectably hunt their human prey. David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) are among a group of terrified townspeople trapped in a local grocery store when the otherworldly mist roils into town. It isn’t long before David realizes that some thing — wraithlike and terrifying — is hiding in the mist. He has trouble convincing the others until one by one they begin getting picked off.

As their numbers shrink, the impromptu community becomes increasingly divided. Do they stay and barricade the plate-glass façade of the store in hopes it will keep out whatever wants in, or do they make a run for it, hoping against hope that they can escape and find rescue? Imperiling the situation even further is Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a Bible-thumper whose apocalyptic tirades sound implausible at first but garner ever more superstitious disciples as things continue to deteriorate. Other than the book of Revelation, from which she reads and quotes liberally, Mrs. Carmody is someone who has spent little time in the New Testament. Her’s is an Old Testament God, full of violent wrath and brimstone punishment. Carmody sees the mist as a heavenly retribution for humankind’s wickedness, a prelude to the end of the world.

Their survival depends on everyone pulling together, but as the fractures continue, reason gives way to fear and panic, and the real monsters are revealed to be, not in the mist, but in their midst. The thin veneer of civilization is pulled away and the true horror is revealed to be none other than us.

This is Frank Darabont’s third feature-length adaptation of a work by master of horror Stephen King, the first two being The Shawshank Redemption (which has gone on to become one of the most beloved films of the 20th century) and The Green Mile. Ironically enough, Darabont is known as a far classier director than he regards himself, an anomaly directly tied to the success of his resume since Shawshank. However, Darabont got his start in Hollywood working in the horror genre, having penned The Fly II, The Blob remake, and Nightmare on Elm Street 3. With The Mist, Darabont has returned to that in which he is most comfortable.

Although Darabont insists The Mist is an unabashed horror film, it gleefully plays more like a B-Sci Fi monster movie from the 1950s, as if it is wholly unaware the genre ever went out of style. More to the point, it feels like an old radio drama of the 1940s to which moving pictures have been added.

Darbont’s script vacillates somewhere between pitch-perfect and hyper-literate — not the sort we’d find, say, in something written by Aaron Sorkin, but the kind of sentences that have been run through a computer thesaurus to convert everyday vocabulary into language the author doesn’t comprehend but certainly makes him sound smarter.

Compounding this problem, characters are written to act unbelievably. When half a dozen people tell Andre Bragher’s skeptical New York lawyer that they were just attacked by a tentacled beast in a back room and chopped off an appendage as proof, he is unwilling to even walk the few steps to confirm their story. The script needs a single-minded doubting Thomas and it will have one, whether he acts like any rational human being would or not. Marcia Gay Harden’s Mrs. Carmody cannot help but become a caricature, no matter how exemplary her acting — it was inevitably from the first draft of the script. Thomas Jane, best know for The Punisher, competently and assuredly leads a respectable ensemble cast that also includes Laurie Holden, Toby Jones, William Sadler and Frances Sternhagen.

The cause of the mist is reveled to be a military experiment that went horribly wrong while trying to open a gateway to another dimension. Why is it that when you open a portal to another world, what comes out always wants to eat you? The digital monsters, resembling grotesque aberrations of spiders, birds, bugs, and 50-foot-high crabs, are mostly convincing, but we can’t shake the feeling that we’ve seen them somewhere — perhaps a dozen somewheres — before.

Don’t expect Darbont’s usual shimmering cinematography and graceful camerawork. The Mist is seen through handheld cameras that shake to and fro and crash-zoom on the chaotic action. While the action could have used tighter, more rapid edits, the handheld style, so popular today, works well for the story.

Darabont admits to being “a little pissed off at mankind lately” and it shows. This Sci Fi/Horror mongrel is a modern day “Lord of the Flies,” a horrific morality tale that uses the mist and its monsters as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin in order to examine the way in which civilization evaporates in the face of catastrophe.

Ultimately, the film finds nothing hopeful about humankind. The final moments of The Mist are consumed with utter, complete despondency. You anticipate where the narrative is driving, but cannot imagine your assumptions are correct. Whereas King’s novella ends ambiguously, Darabont has fashioned a denouement that just may be the most nihilistic I have ever witnessed in a film.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brandon,

I don't agree that "The Mist" is nearly as nihilistic as you say. The characters aren't amoral or devoid of beliefs. They just can't agree on their beliefs, and often their beliefs aren't held that strongly, but that is no different from the characters in nearly any modern film (or in real life). Many do act immorally, but they don't act as if morality is irrelevant, like a true nihilist would. And the climactic scene is more of a morality tale than a nihilistic, "nothing matters" ode.

I didn't love the film; I gave it a "B." And I agree with large parts of your review (such as with the comparison to '50s B-movies or earlier radio shows, although I thought the CG effects looked fake, as they almost always do; while they save money, I'm longing more and more for use of models or real things). But I don't think it's a nihilistic film. So many of the art-house dregs-of-society films, or the Hollywood shoot-'em-up films, are far more nihilistic, far more devoid of any sense of belief, meaning, goodness, or morality. There are clearly good characters in "The Mist" -- MORE so than in most movies, I would say. Does it have a "Lord of the Flies"-like quality? Yes. But human frailty or unreasonableness is not nihilism. Nihilism is believing in nothing -- more specifically, not believing in right or wrong (or in our ability to ascertain them), or that they matter, or (relatedly although not entirely inseparably) in anything divine. In sum, I just didn't think such nihilistic qualities were particularly evident in this film at all.

Jeff

8:02 AM  
Blogger Brandon said...

Ummm, did you *see* the last five minutes!?!?

8:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, and the choices made therein certainly DID have consequences, profound ones. There was nothing meaningless about them. Like I said, I think the climactic scene was a morality tale, which is pretty much the opposite of a nihilistic ending.

Jeff

10:15 AM  

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