Reasonable people can disagree on the level to which Stephen King's writings have been well-served by the cinema, but I think it's not going to be controversial if I suggest that whether your list of "Great Stephen King Movies" is long or very short, it is extremely likely that The Shawshank Redemption is very near the top of it. Given that director Frank Darabont's follow-up, the King adaptation The Green Mile, was decent enough, and his follow-up to that, the non-King The Majestic, was shitty, it seemed that a pattern could be detected: Frank Darabont is a good adapter of Stephen King.
Just about the only useful aspect of The Mist is that it disproves that theory. Written and directed by Darabont from a King novella, the film is decidedly not decent enough. It is rather startlingly bad, in fact, although a film whose concept could be described as "The Fog with Stephen King characters" really can't be called startlingly bad.
The Mist clearly wants to be many things all at once: an old-fashioned things going bump in the dark scary story, a new-fashioned splatter epic, a Serling-esque study of human frailty couched in a genre film, an indictment of contemporary America's willingness to cede freedom in favor of security, a tender story of heartbreaking familial sacrifice. There are many reasons why it is none of these things, but let's start with the most obvious: the characters. It's so very easy to pick out a King character: he does not write people so much as he has seemingly eight or nine templates that he plugs into all of his stories and simply paints them as the particular setting requires. Having admittedly not read the source material for any of the three Darabont movies, I can't say that it's to his specific credit that what I'm about to say is so, but it's a particular success of Shawshank especially, that the characters don't feel very archetypal. They really don't feel all that realistic, but they feel more or less unique and fully-fleshed. That's a pretty rare trick for a King adaptation, perhaps the rarest of all, and The Mist doesn't come close to doing the same thing. In The Mist we have the Stoic Father, the Crazy Nutjob Religious Lady, the Unexpectedly Tough Nebbish, the Level-Headed Woman, the Paranoid Guy. All of them trapped inside a grocery store as a thick mist surrounds them, and giant, vaguely prehistoric-looking CGI effects appear in the frame and fail to interact with them convincingly.
But, in the grand tradition of "people locked in one small place" horror movies, The Mist isn't "about" surviving beastie attacks, but about what happens when humans are forced into close quarters. A microcosm, if you will. Good Lord knows Stephen King will. Essentially, the movie is about how fascism is born, and not just any fascism but reactionary Christian fascism, and not just any reactionary Christian fascism but incredibly contrived and stereotypical reactionary Christian fascism. The conflict boils down to the eminently capable and rational David Drayton (the magnificently indifferent Thomas Jane, whose Arrested Development episode proves that he knows how impersonal his acting can be, and whose appearance here proves that he does not care) against the KRAZEE!!! Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), who spends her time reciting Revelations from memory and proclaiming that the mist and the beasties are God's punishment for secular liberalism.
That wouldn't be much more than annoying and only marginally believable (why don't apocalyptic films ever feature religious moderates?), but it's the efficiency with which she establishes herself as a cult leader that pushes the material into sub-sub-Twilight Zone territory. It takes all of twelve hours for some two-dozen people in a store packed with shelf-stable food to go completely Bronze Age, and this is not "social satire" as much as it is "fucking unlikely." Blah blah metaphor blah Reichstag fire, but it's unsatisfying sub-intellectual flim-flam, and Harden's character is simply impossible, and the character comes off as a simpering harpy rather than a dangerous adversary.
Could such a story be told in a halfway believable and compelling way? Of course, but not with cardboard characters like these, or the other major figures who manage to defeat some very fine performers: Toby Jones, William Sadler and particularly Andre Braugher, who in a career of being misused has never been quite so wasted as he is here: act cranky and skeptical, and lead all of the black characters off to their deaths in one of the most jaw-dropping and obvious examples of "black people die first" I have ever seen in a horror film.
And too, it might have worked if the film had been made with a little more care; I can't do better than to steal the observation made by a friend of mine that it plays an awful lot like a television movie. It's a little too easy to say that of a King adaptation, and that doesn't begin to address the many loving gore scenes littered around the film, but I really think it's a perfect way to describe the film's aesthetic: certainly Tom Jane's catatonic performance screams of TV-budget stardom, and the visuals (above and beyond the conspicuously phony CGI) are inelegantly conceived and full of the medium-close shots that are such a constant presence on the small screen. Not to mention some weirdly unmotivated crash zooms that fit so poorly into the film that I thought the first couple were accidents. What happened to Darabont's eye, I cannot begin to say, although the fact that he's gone from working with Roger Deakins in Shawshank to Ronn Schmidt, veteran of classics like Beastmaster 2 and Time Trackers, might have at least a wee bit to do with it.
By the time the film rolls round to its resolution (The military did it! Which, while a creaky old cliché, is one that hasn't gotten too much use in the last couple of years, so I'll let it slide) and its conclusion (dour and ironic, reinforcing the sub-sub-sub-Twilight Zone vibe) I had long since ceased to care. It's an aimless, artless film about so many things that it turns out to be about nothing, full of characters who aren't quirky enough to cover for how fake they are. And so indifferently made, grinding along without anything scary or visually suggestive. This is a film like cheap vanilla ice cream, in possession of virtually no personality except for a sort of baseline of annoyance; it is the Thomas Jane of movies.
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