Monday, January 3, 2011

The Mist (2007)

The Mist is a tense, gripping film with an extremely intriguing premise that's greatly exploited, strong performances by an A-list cast and a ruthlessly efficient screenplay that manages to keep you on the edge of your seat for two whole hours. It features incredible special FX that blend almost seamlessly with the live world, a pragmatic camera that seems to instinctively know where to go, but also... one of the worst film endings of all times. This ending is so bad, especially considering how stellar the preceding 120 minutes are, that it will certainly leave a bitter taste in your mouth and some nail marks in your palm. The grandiose climax, one that actually made me shiver in awe, is completely ruined by it, and on purpose! It really makes you wonder whether the makers of this film even knew what they were doing. Privileging a cheap twist ending as they do and thus jeopardizing the lasting impression that the film could've had on its viewers, this almost trivializes the entire enterprise and seems to lessen every one of the great achievements leading up to the final few frames. It's a damn shame! I don't know if Darabont (who did an impeccable job with The 'Shank (1994)) simply wanted to stay true to King's original story or if he didn't even understand the very nature of the mood he worked so hard to create (although I could make an educated guess), but it's a real shame! The guy really shot himself in the foot, there. Still, I've had a long hard think about the whole issue, and decided that I would not penalize the film too much only because of the ending, seeing how a single minute of pure shit could not really topple two hours of gold, even if it actually did.

When I first saw the film, I mostly liked it, but ended up dismissing the entire project on account of its ending (I originally planned to give the film a **1/2 rating). When I saw it again, I liked it even more. So I was even more pissed off against the ending. But love eventually overweighted hate, especially in regards to a certain gun-shot wound to the head which I would've loved to share with fellow Fantasia fanatics. And so I was reconciled with The Mist, its generous narrative, talented director Darabont and with the lovely folks of Bridgton, Maine: the smart and sensitive hero (Thomas Jane), the touching, traumatized kid (Nathan Gamble), gorgeous teenage sitter (Alexa Davalos), diminutive bagger/crack-shot (Toby Jones), and lovely old school mistress (Frances Sternhagen), all with their own wisdom and skills to bring to the battle. But most of all, I reconciled with one of my favorite film villains of all times, demented Christian zealot Mrs. Carmody, played to perfection by Marcia Gay Harden who gives one of the best performances in the annals of contemporary horror.

Stranded townsfolk vs The Mist (Odds are 1:150,000,000).

As we say in Quebec, The Mist doesn't fiddle around with the puck. The action starts almost straight away, after just a tiny bit of exposition necessary to set up the story. You see, most of the character development in the film is made while those characters are stranded by the mist, and pushed to the limits of their humanity. Thus, we get to see only their true selves as revealed by stress and the fear of death. We don't have to bother with their mundane selves, save for the opening sequence wherein civility between neighbors arise only to bring about a more dramatic break when things start turning sour, hence showing us how such civility is but a mask that helps us live our lives in the perpetual, unconfessed hatred of others.

The film opens on David Drayton (Thomas Jane) who is quietly painting a portrait of 'the quiet man' from the Leone films when an electrical storm causes a power outage that plunges his cozy Maine house in total darkness. But the storm causes more than this. It causes trees to fall down and crash through the windows and over his boat house, ripping his ongoing work to shreds. The following morning, it's time for the Drayton family to appraise the damage. And when David realizes that it is actually his neighbor's tree that has fallen over his boat house, he figures it's time for them both to trade insurance information. This would be a simple task if said neighbor wasn't a self-centered power lawyer from the big city who looks at country folks as a bunch of primitive hicks. When the two men meet, David tames the honorable law man (Andre Braugher, solid) by expressing sincere feelings for his crushed Mercedes. And he tames him even further by offering a ride into town along with him and his son. At this point, it seems that the two former enemies are almost becoming friends. But this doesn't last long, as they both become stranded in the grocery store where they went to buy supplies. Along with a large chunk of the town's population, they are in dire need to stash up in the event of a nastier storm. But when a bleeding old man comes rushing in through the sliding doors, screaming "Something in the mist, something in the mist", while being seemingly pursued by a smoky cloud that instantly laps up the entire parking lot, everybody knows something is wrong. And so they all barricade themselves inside the grocery store, soon realizing that there is indeed something in the mist, something monstrous that threatens them all. But then, there are those who believe and those who don't, making for multiple arising bands of contradicting allegiance. Before long, it's every man for himself as the bodies keep piling up and the fight for survival (against outside forces and paranoid fellowmen alike) becomes more and more fierce. In the end, the fun lies not in knowing the origin of the monsters, but in witnessing the slow mental decay of a tightly-knit community in the face of apocalyptic, unexplainable disaster.

Being a major studio film, The Mist has the advantage of casting over its brothers from poverty row and skilled director Darabont takes full advantage of it. Totaling a whopping 27 acting nominations for various awards (most of them going to Michael Clarke Duncan for The Green Mile), the four feature films by the French maestro are obvious proof that he is a highly competent director of actors. Here, he gets a real honest performance out of action star Thomas Jane as the over-burdenened hero trying to salvage a sinking ship full of emotionally-shattered souls, but also from young Nathan Gamble who appears truly traumatized by the events unfolding around him. As father and son, the two actors make a really empathic duo that you really come to cherish. Add to that the presence of regulars William Sadler as a grease-monkey on the verge of a nervous breakdown and Laurie Holden as the wide-eyed leading lady, with really affective performances from a supporting cast full of conviction, and you've got what appears to be a real town full of real people stuck in a really extreme situation.

But most of all, we have Marcia Gay Harden as Mrs. Carmody, the bitch queen of the universe, the delusional, Bible-totting, child-sacrificing maniac from Hell who represents both the totalitarian power of the medieval Church and the most extreme elements of the American religious right. As such, she is more than annoying, she is downright scary. The influence she has on the poor people seeking an answer to their metaphysical woes is reminiscent of those rotten apples from the Bible Belt, those who, unhappy with simply believing in the existence of a Creator who has generously given us life, preach only His anger and vengeance, condemning the faithful to a lifetime of penitent servitude. Religion in itself, even the detestable Christian religion, is not bad as long as it preaches compassion, love and trust in your fellowman. But used as it is by the likes of Mrs. Carmody, that is in order to further their own selfish agendas, that is not religion, that is politics. Personally, I wanted to gouge the woman's eyes out with my thumbs, ever since she started babbling about her own personal god, the "bloodthirsty asshole" that pulpit Pitbulls dream up to rake collection money from the trembling hands of their parishioners. And the more I thought about my hate for Carmody, the more I started to respect Harden's performance. I mean, if an actor can make you react in such a way, they must be doing a damn good job, which is certainly the case here.

All in all, characterization is a key feature in films such as The Mist, that is survivor films taking place 'In Camera', because acting thus becomes a privileged mean for conveying mood. Here, the entire cast contributes its share to depict a world on the brink of madness and they do it almost flawlessly. The slowly forming cliques, deteriorating mental states, erupting personal feuds, emotional outbursts, all are perfectly controlled, and perfectly believable. The world of the film thus becomes the microcosm of a dystopian society caught right at the moment before extinction, and so the entire cast is capable of transcending its excellent work and become much, much more than the sum of its parts. Well done!

Give Thomas Jane a chance, he and diminutive Nathan
Gamble are actually real, heart-warming characters here. Also,
the inside of a grocery store have never looked so good.

As invaluable as the acting is here, it is the smart, episodic screenplay that magnifies its impact. Its savvy use of ellipses, its taking small, but very revelatory steps in narrative progression, this allows the characters to develop nicely through the course of the film. Hence, David is soon revealed as a passionate humanist after he witnesses the death by tentacles of a foolish bag boy who decided to show his bravery by stepping outside to unblock the vent of a power generator. Warned by David, whom he doesn't really consider to be an integrant part of their township, the poor kid rather decides to try and impress the local grease-monkeys who talk tough and try to discredit David's warnings as bourgeois bullshit. But when he is munched, then dragged to his death by fanged tentacles, it is David who is truly heart-broken, but it is also him who throws the first punch, right in the face of Jim (Sadler), the dull-eyed "though guy". And thus, the first break occurs: a break in the characters' sanity, but also a break between believers and non-believers. Because when David calmly tries to explain how a thirty feet long tentacle has grabbed the bag boy, he is met with annoyed disbelief, which is perfectly understandable given the situation.

At that point, there can be four explanations for The Mist (natural, artificial, supernatural or spiritual) which are based solely on assumptions and beliefs rather than facts. These explanations will soon begin to clash, but also to interpenetrate and thus blur the perception of the people held captive. And thus, we can return to the idea of a microcosm, complete with varied sets of ideologies concerning the nature of life and of the universe, constantly clashing ideologies creating tension and forming cliques which, given the circumstances, will eventually turn against each other. Hence, The Mist is not interesting only in sociological terms (analysis of social reactions when a population is confronted with extreme situations), but also in metaphysical terms (the clash of ideas bringing about a heated debate concerning the very nature of the world surrounding us). Needless to say that when the actual "facts" concerning the nature of the mist arise, one is necessarily underwhelmed to find the debate sterilized. Fortunately, and again this shows you just how smart the screenplay is, the ball fumbled by the need for a definitive explanation is picked up right away in order to open another debate concerning man's folly in tampering with God's perfect design. Obviously, such "debates" become more and more groundless as the characters sink deeper into madness and despair, but this is all very well gauged and perfectly relevant to the explosive central narrative.

And although The Mist is no Lord of the Rings, the interplay of CGI beasties and live actors is good enough to spawn plenty of exhilarating, sometimes even transcending scenes of horror, paramount of which features the thinly veiled shadow of a tentacled hulk towering over the characters' SUV (as seen in the gorgeous illustration below). Be they all sorts of toothy tentacles or corrosive spider silk, shelf-smashing prehistoric flyers or large flying insects, every monstrous entity is fluidly animated, making their movements surprisingly lifelike. With the scenery being destroyed accordingly, the otherworldly fauna from the mist appears to have truly penetrated into our world. If characterization was essential for bringing life to the stranded mob of paranoid townsfolk, adequate special effects were equally essential for fleshing out the impeding menace threatening those townsfolk, making them react the way they do. It is the symbiosis of those two elements that makes the film so plausible, and thus so successful. Plus, these CGI effects are good for the show, that is the horror show, or cinema's ability to materialize nightmares. These effects allow the creation of larger than life creature from the nether regions of the imagination, giving them an intelligible and immediately menacing shape, ultimately making them livelier than any latex or stop-motion monster of old. All in all, the excellence of the acting in the film finds its reflection in the excellence of the special FX, which combined, vie to create a well-laid world pulsating with all forms of life. An ecosystem all of its own, wherein man is no longer at the top of the food chain. Again, a microcosm.

Lifelike special FX contribute greatly to the film's affect

Frank Darabont's camera is also thankfully versatile in its ability to frame both the well-composed, more theatrical shots of character interaction and the exhilarating, equally well-composed action scenes in all of their glory. Being extremely volatile at times, it propels the action, and the speedy flyers with dizzying virtuosity while sacrificing nothing in the way of plastic beauty. For anybody who has seen The 'Shank, that is The Shawshank Redemption, or The Green Mile (1999), the director's perfectionism in all manners of technique should come as no surprise. The man is very classical in his approach, but he shares something else with Golden Age American directors: an impeccable work ethic. Every detail of his films, including the gorgeous art direction is catered to with utmost care and, yes... with unbridled love for cinema as grandiose spectacle. Of course, the budget helps, but then again, the 18M$ of The Mist are nothing compared to the 237M$ of Avatar (which was released a scant two years later) or the 25M$ of Freddy vs Jason (2003). The problem is that only a fraction of the people who pay to see the latter two films will buy tickets for Darabont's films. It's a shame, and very symptomatic of things in the contemporary film market where flashy gimmicks systematically seem to overwhelm formal beauty. That said, all we can do for now is grind our teeth and swear (I solemnly swear) to go see Darabont's next film in theaters, that is before the hype reaches me and drags me to it, when it needs to be the other way around.

If you re-read my review, you will notice that I have only one bad comment to say about the film and it concerns the ending. Still, I stand by my comments, praising the film for its formal excellence and engrossing narrative while insisting on the fact that the ending almost condemns the whole project to oblivion. And although I will not fully reveal this ending, I will just say this: the thing I hate the most in films are twist endings, especially if they contradict a mood so carefully established as The Mist's. Here, the overwhelming, transcending and truly shocking perspective of a destroyed Earth, lost by human arrogance to the creatures of a world beyond is brutally annihilated by the need to focus on the plight of one individual. This extremely narrow vision of what horror truly is in regards to humanity has shocked, and will continue to shock me forever. And I will always blame Darabont, not King, for it as he is supposed to be the master in his own castle (especially with his 'producer' credits). Yet, I will not completely dismiss any of his great achievements. And to you, the viewer, I will say this: see The Mist, see it right away, see it with your family, see it with your friends, see it alone, but see it. It is a worthy film, worthy of at least a lasting life on DVD. But do this: turn it off after the fourth gun shot at the end. I swear you will enjoy it even more than you would have otherwise.

In conclusion, I would like to take this opportunity to share with you a sublime illustration that I have come across while researching the film. In my opinion, it perfectly exemplifies the sense of unfathomable horror stemming from the world created by Stephen King and Frank Darabont. This is the whole portrait evoked only in shreds by the film but depicted here with bone-chilling artistry and whole-hearted insight. Behold!

Here is a link to the artist's blog where you can check
out more detailed zooms. And other amazing work.

3,5/5 A very well-crafted A-list film that works admirably well until the final few shots.