Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"The Mist" -- * * * *

With "The Mist," Frank Darabont proves two things: one, that he's nearly impossible to nail down or label as a filmmaker; and two, that perhaps he should be required to be behind the camera whenever a Stephen King adaptation is greenlit. A relentlessly downbeat and genuinely unsettling horror film, "The Mist" proves to be one of the very best film versions of King's work, though it's certain to polarize audiences (including critics) as much as any film has in the last twenty years. Opening with blink-and-you'll-miss-them nods to "The Thing" and "Pan's Labyrinth" (a film both Darabont and King have expressed their love for), "The Mist" is a genre film for true fans of the genre and not bandwagon-followers who just give their dollars to the "Saw" films and whatever remake comes out this week.

King's 27-year-old novella (arguably one of his most cinematic works) is painstakingly adhered to by Darabont, save for its ambiguous ending (more on that later). Our protagonist is film-poster artist David Drayton (Tom Jane) and when we first meet him, a particularly bad storm is raging and David, along with his wife and son Billy (Nathan Gamble), seek refuge in their basement. After a monstrous tree crashes through their window, David and Billy head to the local grocery store to stock up on food and supplies, but the storm has left a mysterious and impenetrable mist in its wake. While they're inside the supermarket, the local emergency horn sounds as the mist envelops the town, and a local with a bloody nose (Jeffrey DeMunn) takes shelter in the store, shouts "there's something in the mist!" and announces that whatever that "something" is ate/killed his friend.

Wisely heeding the injured man's advice, the store patrons shut the door, take cover and attempt to figure out what to do. The more time spent inside, and particularly after Norm the bag boy (Chris Owen) is devoured by something from the mist with tentacles while attempting to turn on a generator, fear, mistrust and madness begin to overwhelm those who remain. All the while, there's the constant threat of attack from the varying creatures within the mist as David tries to protect his son as best he can from said creatures, and the increasingly vicious two-legged ones around him. Chief among them is Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a Christian extremist who believes the events outside are in fact the end of Days. Carmody sees this as an opportunity to preach her fire-and-brimstone philosophies to former non-believers, and the more catastrophic, seemingly supernatural occurrences that occur, the larger her makeshift "congregation" grows.

It's ironic that the selling of "The Mist" is being attributed largely to it being "from the writer/director of 'The Shawshank Redemption' and 'The Green Mile,'" since this bitterly pessimistic work shares little of those two films' humanistic ideals. While Darabont's writing is just as sharp here as on those two Oscar-nominated films, the film more calls to mind his early work on "The Fly II" and "The Blob" than those King adaptations. "The Mist" struck me more as a B-movie creature feature taking place in the real world, playing things completely straight and focusing on the human side of the story and an analysis of how people would react in such a situation.

As such, fans of typical horror films will not quite know what to make of "The Mist." It's a shame that so much of the horror genre has pandered so steadfastly to its moronic fanbase over the years so that when a genuinely challenging and intelligent one comes along, it's almost guaranteed to get rejected. Those who prefer their genre pictures filled with cheap thrills, and like them best when "fun," will not be happy with "The Mist." This is an increasingly dark affair with a sense of dread that never gets alleviated. By the two-thirds mark (after a particularly chilling stabbing), it seems things can't possibly get more bleak and dispiriting, but lo and behold, they do.

So yeah, things are quite grim, but are they scary? Very. The increasingly claustrophobic feel adds to the almost unbearable tension, especially as characters begin to weigh their options about whether they're safer inside with the other people or outside with the creatures. In terms of those creatures, the effects on display are frightening and squirm-inducing, but even moreso when Darabont subscribes (as he often does) to the notion of letting your imagination do much of the work. What you don't see here-- and what's obscured by the mist-- makes the proceedings ten times scarier, and only makes the out-of-nowhere appearances of the varying creatures that much more frightening.

Without a Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey to hang his feature on, Darabont employs an ensemble cast largely unknown to the moviegoing masses, thus infusing the oft-bereft genre with *gasp* accomplished actors. From "Boogie Nights" to "The Punisher," Jane has always had an admirable sense of commitment to what he does, no matter how lousy the movie might be, and I was really impressed with his work here. If we don't connect to David, it's easy for this to just become a game of "what monster will come next?," and Jane succeeds in making him sympathetic, resourceful and human, and not just a hunky sensitive-artist stereotype.

Speaking of stereotypes, Harden sure as hell plays one here, but its to her credit that she turns this one-note role into something truly remarkable and, dare I say, Oscar-worthy. Carmody is no doubt a woman that we completely despise, but Harden (with the help of an especially well-written praying scene in a bathroom) makes her feel utterly real and in a warped way, makes us understand her, even if we never come close to sympathizing with her. Harden is, without question, a great actress, but it's difficult to remember that when she continually plays long-suffering wives/mothers. She may have looked at Mrs. Carmody as a fun departure, but it turns out to be one of her best performances, as well as the most fascinating-to-watch villain this side of Anton Chigurh.

For the majority of "The Mist," my audience seemed to be with it and getting caught up with the goings-ons and responding fairly well, and then in the last 20 minutes or so, I could slowly feel the energy of the room turning against it. Then the ending hit, and as people left the theater, I could just hear mutterings of "that was horrible" and "what did I just watch?" Yes, "The Mist" has a jaw-dropper of an ending. Abandoning King's ending's ambiguity, Darabont delivers an emotional gut-punch that is quite possibly the ballsiest conclusion to a horror film that I've ever seen.

I can understand the visceral reactions; the horror genre is notoriously one that people step outside of and watch for voyeuristic purposes, so Darabont asking us to get this invested and take responsibility is a major risk. I presume this decision will result in the film taking a massive box office nosedive in its second weekend, but also solidify it a place in the pantheon of horror classics. Pay no attention to what the Tomato-meter says or what some guy you work with tells you; 20 years down the line, people will speak with a great reverence for "The Mist" and what it means to horror cinema.


Blogger Piper said...

Man, that's one hell of a review.

It's a simple story, but a great one. The decision of what is safer... staying inside or going outside the store is a great one.

I have yet to see this, but is there any talk about what created the Mist? I'm hoping not. Sometimes it's just better not to explain everything.

Anyway, great review. I'm looking forward to it.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

There's a bit too much discussion about what created it for my taste (I'd rather the conversation just not be there), but it still barely reveals anything and creates more of a shroud of mystery. The character revealing the info is out of the picture, so to speak, before we can learn anything definitive, so we get no concrete answers, no.

4:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apparently I must be in the minority. As an avid/ since inception horror fan..natic.

I believe the ending was absolutly genius and what will solidify the story in my mind for years to come. It made it more thought provoking and real.

11:18 PM  
Blogger Beau said...

Could not agree more.

1:50 AM  

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