29 November 2007

SMOKE THAT COMES FROM THE MOUTH OF HELL

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.

4/10

12 comments:

Rebecca said...

I never assumed Darabont was a good King adapter. I assumed he had a decent amount of luck with King stories that deal with horror of human nature, which are fairly different than those that deal with supernatural horror (I don't view the supernatural element of The Green Mile to be that significant to the movie). That's where S.K. goes into the crazy land that very few people have been able to fathom in terms of adaptations.

drac said...

Man, you are so full of shit its scary. Fools like you are the reason that shit like this WILL happen when a bunch of morons are shoved into a fear soaked survival situation. You have WAY too much faith in the people this world is made of.

And there is a reason there are NO religious moderates in these kinds of situations. THEY BECOME THE FANATICS.

Absolute belief in something you CANT PROVE is the first step on the road to complete insanity and "Bronze Age" thinking.

As to it being a good movie. I was extremely entertained, But then again I didnt go looking for a social commentary and other bullshit in every scene either.

Its a fucking movie, it was entertaining. Overcritical fuck.

Satria said...

Thank you for this is brilliant review. You absolutely nail what's wrong with that laughable cheesefest. Didn't think there was still a sensible soul out there after reading the user comments on IMDB.

tryred said...

Yeah. Let’s all watch a movie where a bunch of religious moderates stay calm in the face of scary as fuck things. They can sit around, play cards and sing a nice uplifting tune until the time comes to make their way safely through the fog to pry their cold, deceased loved ones from the roof of their fucked up house. I wanted to see people shit their pantaloons, and kill each other. I saw that. It was cool

Davo said...

This review sums up many of the feelings I had about The Mist. I felt it was one of the worst acted movies I have seen. There were multiple "red herrings", poor special effects and an ending that added nothing to the story. I am surprised it has received so many positive reviews.

I don't agree with the comment from drac that religious moderates become religious fanatics in "these kinds of situations". One has to remember that the fanatic in the movie was already portrayed as unbalanced. This situation did not create her mental state.

This movie is on my worst 10 list.

ivor said...

Although the review shows some sense of cinematic awareness, I altogether disagree with his lofty pronouncements.
The crawling eye? hardly. More like "The Birds" a very good parallel.
The reaction of all the characters in the movie was all too believable, thats what made the film so chilling and the end so poignant and disturbing. It was a very well done movie from every shot to every effect. the movie will not do big box office, not because of any flaws in the film, but because it is such a downer, concerning the lack of the one aspect humans hold most dear, the presence of hope and faith.

John said...

Being overseas, I have just been able to watch this movie.
I think there are two kinds of people who watch King adaptations: people who like his work, and people who just want to see a movie. Being in the former, I'm a bit biased, but then again, I felt your review was a bit biased in the "I've never seen a truly good King movie" way. I found the movie to be one of the most accurate adaptations of a book I've ever seen (aside from the military thing).
The suspense was built up slowly and steadily. While I agree with your comment about the CG not blending in perfectly, you have to admit that it wasn't god-awful (watch some Japanese movies to see God-Awful CG. Heck, watch Moses!). The monsters were sparsely used as well, which kept the "what's out there" feeling high.
Take what you will of the Carmody character. Stereotypical zealot, or a realistic glimpse into humanity, but that's how king wrote the character almost 30 years ago. The movie was an adaptation, and it adapted the story well.
Enjoy it or don't enjoy it. It's a free world.

mconsidine314 said...

First of all it was a good movie, especially since most horrors don't work, end of 30 Days of Night was ridiculous after watching what was a good horror movie. This one falls in line with 28 days. How do you think this would not happen is my question. People turn on each other for much less dire situations - look at the world and especially after 9/11 in the U.S how people reacted. I was told numerous times to go back to London from people that had no connection and I actually lost close family that day. No ground breaking info here - the masses are idiots and it's been proven time and time again. Even when the truth is proven, it is then disregarded. I fully buy the religious zealot - anyone that removes reason and practical decision making for blind faith should be wearing a helmet at all times

MidnightPrism said...

The absolute worst movie I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of crap. I can't believe how bad it actually is.

Jen said...

i think people who consider this "one of the worst movies ever" got stuck on the points that were less than thrilling and decided to dwell in them.

i'll start with what i thought was bad; the CGI. awful. laughable. i thought the scenes where you only see shadows were much creepier than the ridiculous "spiders" or those "bird" things. the scene towards the end, where you see the giant monster's silhouette through the mist, i thought was amazing. the second thing i didn't like was some of the acting. mainly thomas jane. my goodness, he's terrible. for some reason, he's fully against showing any kind of emotion in his roles. the scene at the end where he just stars screaming to himself i thought was great. bone chilling almost... but for the rest of the movie, he was completely mono.

the things that i did like about the movie far outweigh the bad, however. marcia-gay harden's role is nothing short of amazing. when i saw this movie in the theaters, nearly the entire place cheered and applauded her death. i thought that was awesome.

i absolutely loved the way this movie focuses more on human nature than surviving monsters. the monsters almost seem like a subtext for most of the film, and when you put them together, what's scarier?

i thought this was a bold film that didn't follow the normal movie rules, and in a time where movies like Transformers are winning "best picture" awards (mtv movie awards), it's incredibly refreshing to see films step out and take a chance.

Chiquita Dulce said...

I could not have summed it up better. Kudos.

Jeff said...

Yep, I agree completely.

While watching this movie I suddenly noticed that Thomas Jane bears a remarkable resemblance to 1967 William Shatner, and at that point, the movie became a comedy. Didn't help that he mined the exact same style of thespian excess!!

Good monster sequences, bad everyhing else.