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The Mist (2007)

Politics of the Apocalypse

I can’t decide if The Mist is a great movie, or if it’s a good movie with lots of flaws that’s saved by a spectacular ending.  It’s definitely not a mediocre film, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve seen it five times—and I guess that nudges it into the “great” category.  But, man, those flaws are hard to miss.

Based on a Stephen King story, The Mist centers on a small-town convenience store that becomes a refuge for scared citizens when a mysterious, deadly mist rolls down from a nearby mountain.  The mist isn’t poisonous, but it provides cover for a variety of large, nasty bugs, dinosaurs and tentacle-d monsters that love to eat people.  Over the course of three days, as the reality of this unreal situation sinks in, factions form and religious fervor makes the inside of the store almost as dangerous as the ever-shrinking world beyond its doors.

At the center of this is movie-poster artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane).  He came into town with his son, Billy (Nathan Gamble), and bickering neighbor, Brent (Andre Braugher), after a big storm hurled a tree through his studio window.  As panic rises, Drayton emerges as the cool head, constantly thinking and re-thinking the group’s position.  He’s the Duane Jones-type in director Frank Darabont’s attempt to remake Night of the Living Dead.

Drayton’s nemesis is Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a fundamentalist Christian nut-job (I’m not editorializing in my description, unless you consider incessant cursing and human sacrifice to be WWJD behavior).  At first, she’s discounted as a scripture-quoting blabber-mouth, but as the creatures attack the store and claim exactly the amount of victims that she “prophesizes”, the survivors become a congregation; their fear turns to suspicion of Drayton and his few non-believing friends.

The premise is well-worn but nicely established.  The acting is uniformly great.  But there are two big problems with The Mist that can’t be ignored: the dialogue and the special effects.  I’ll start with the lesser of the two.

This film has some of the most impressive monsters I’ve seen in years, in terms of design.  Legendary comics artist Bernie Wrightson designed them not with snarling, malicious intent in mind—I believe this is as much King’s influence as his own ideas about the story—but with an eye to realizing creatures that just popped into our dimension from another world.

The Mist could almost be considered a nature special by way of The Twilight Zone in the way it treats the monsters’ reactions to the people in the store; at nighttime, the folks in the store turned on the lights; bugs are attracted to light; the bugs attract giant dino-birds; the dino-birds find humans a more substantial meal than bugs; all hell breaks loose.

While the idea is brilliant, the execution is hit-or-miss.  The first attack would have been intense had the CG tentacles not looked so fake.  It’s just too easy to tell that these oddly lit, poorly composited arms don’t occupy the same physical space as the performers.  Fortunately, this is the most egregious case, as the rest of the movie incorporates puppetry and computer animation to create at least a partial illusion.  It also helps that the design of the monsters and the panic they inspire is distracting enough to keep the audience focused on the right things.

What Darabont and company can’t get away from is the awful, Bush-era soapboxing dialogue of just about every main character.  Look, I’m as left-leaning as they come, and even I was uncomfortable during long stretches of this picture.  From the hammer-over-the-head metaphor involving an old man sending a naïve kid to his death for no reason to the handful of conversations about people clinging to their leaders in times of disaster and uncertainty, I half expected one of the store clerks to rip off their apron and reveal a Shepard Fairey “Hope” t-shirt.

I find this particularly hilarious because I happen to be reading the “Dialogue” section of Stephen King’s book, “On Writing”.  King rips into sloppy, inauthentic dialogue and warns that it can stop even a great story dead in its tracks.  I wonder if he wrote that before or after The Mist?

Anyway, the film’s ending saves The Mist from being just a pretty cool little horror movie; it is so terrifying and unexpected that the only word that really nails its greatness is “ballsy”.  For those of you who’ve seen the movie, I’m not talking about the very end; I’m referring to what happens just before, inside the truck.  Man, what a hard choice; what a downer.

I won’t spoil it here, because if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you owe it to yourself as a film lover to see what a dark ending to a major studio movie really looks like.  It’s no wonder the film didn’t do very well theatrically; I imagine the average movie-goer would want to walk right into traffic upon exiting the lobby.  I, on the other hand, was elated by the genuine artfulness of Darabont’s vision (which differs slightly from the way King ended the story; the film wraps with the logical conclusion of the idea the author leaves dangling).

It sucks that I can’t talk about the ending without giving everything away, but I want to take a moment to dance around an idea I had after the second or third viewing.  The most tactful way to do so, I imagine, is with a question to Mist fans:  Does what happens to Drayton and his friends after they leave the store validate Mrs. Carmody’s assertions about God’s role in the events of the film?

I’m not getting religious here; I’m just positing that, if you look at the story a certain way, it’s easy to say that Mrs. Carmody was right all along (I’m just not convinced the voice she heard wasn’t messing with her—and her followers).

You know what?  I’ve made up my mind: The Mist is a great film, flaws and all.