The Theory of Chaos

Monday, December 24, 2007


Full review behind the jump

The Mist

: Frank Darabont
: screenplay by Frank Darabont, based on the novella by Stephen King
: Frank Darabont, Liz Glotzer
: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Andre Braugher, Toby Jones, William Sadler, Jeffrey DeMunn, Frances Sternhagen, Alexa Davalos, Nathan Gamble, Chris Owen, Sam Witwer, Robert C. Treveiler, David Jensen

The Mist you can see shadows of all the big-name authors who’ve influenced Stephen King. There’s some Richard Matheson, a fair bit of H.P. Lovecraft, and, well, Stephen King himself. Just as in over 80 Perry Mason adventures Erle Stanley Gardner doubtlessly had to re-use a few courtroom tricks; so have we seen the prolific King, over the years, resorting to a little recycling in order to carry on his monstrous torments of the good citizens of Maine.

Of course he’s still good at what he does because he sticks to his core principles – that the imagination can be fear’s greatest ally, and that the biggest monster is rarely a match for humanity’s ability to be its own worst enemy. So that
The Mist will get a few good scares in is inevitable, because writer/director Frank Darabont is nothing if not famously scrupulous to King, having already adapted his stories The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. But not all forms of fidelity are intrinsic goods when it comes to adaptation, and he gives reverent treatment to one of King’s least thematically-ambitious tales: a colorful, but ultimately simple, penny dreadful.

With a set-up as quick as a whip-crack, and multiple opportunities for squirming and gore, this is a picture that should move with nasty zip. But it is too-frequently plodding, an aesthetically-uncertain application of “A”-movie pretension to what should have been merrily-“B” hysterics. It achieves on a number of points; but every time it does, some stumble is not far behind to undercut it.

It opens with an unseasonably ferocious storm that causes a power outage and knocks a tree through painter David Drayton’s (Thomas Jane) studio. He takes his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) with him into town to pick up supplies. The supermarket is filled with nervous locals, self-entitled yuppies with vacation homes in the area, and soldiers from that military base in the mountains where they’ve been conducting those secret experiments.

Soon the streets, the parking lot, seemingly the whole town and who knows how much else, is enveloped by a thick white mist, and a townsperson (Jeffrey DeMunn) runs in, screaming that something very dangerous is in there. And soon the store finds itself under siege by an array of beasts that fly, scuttle, sting, chomp, and other horrible things I can’t even find simple verbs for.

There’s a suddenness and ruthlessness to the violence in The Mist that I quite appreciate – the filmmakers are not afraid to spatter blood. And when the town’s local religious zealot Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) starts preaching Armageddon with more authority than usual (those bugs do look like locusts, don’t they?), I liked the gradually bubbling dread of Drayton and some of the other more-secular pragmatists in the store, who recognize that they might not be able to use this place as a safe haven forever. And I especially liked the diminutive store manager, the mild, balding Ollie Weeks (Toby Jones), who no one believes when he says he’s handy with a gun down at the target range. Heroes don’t always come with square jaws.

But two major problems with The Mist emerge quickly and never go away; and I’m not just talking about the below-market computer animation on the creatures. First, the camerawork keeps changing its mind about whether it wants to aim for stable widescreen compositions or dart in for a more modern, hand-held look. Each lends itself to a different experience for the viewer – either they are helpless witnesses, or experiencing the terror immediately from within the crowd. Both can be effective, but switching between them gives the audience an escape from their trance.

The second problem has to do with the peculiar character of the dialogue. At times it sounds like nothing less than a total transcription of the novella. But sentences, even whole conversations, that feel natural on the landscape of the printed page can reveal their jarring construction when suddenly spoken aloud by an actor. On many occasions during The Mist you’ll have this nagging sense that people, especially people in the situation they’re presently in, just wouldn’t be talking this way.

This does not stop the picture from frequently giving you a good jolt. A wide range of phobias are exploited, and as we get on into the second half Darabont effectively crescendos the tension within the store. Harden is invaluable, the fervency with which this Academy Award-winner believes in her otherwise-cartoonish character probably saves the movie from going completely off the cliff. And there’s one shot – you’ll know it when you see it – that captures in a single awesome image the scale of the troubles our characters are in. You’ll know because it looks like a painting that would give you a nightmare, or the cover of some lurid paperback that calls to you even though you fear what’s within its pages.

How tragic, then, that The Mist’s biggest triumph is so immediately followed by its most gross miscalculation. I won’t say anything about how the movie ends, except that Darabont has at last chosen to depart from his source material, which I’d been rather waiting for him to do. But what he’s chosen as an alternative is such a misguided, superfluous cruelty; instead of being shaken, I was just annoyed. It is in the hallowed tradition of good horror stories to be unsparing to good and evil alike, and to deny the characters easy rescue from a higher power. But when filmmakers go a step further, and exercise their own higher power in order to inflict pointless suffering, I tune out. I can’t dismiss The Mist for its mistakes, nor can I fully-recommend it for its virtues. But it hangs there, provocative – the choice of whether or not to walk in is yours.


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