[20 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The indirect partnership of author Stephen King and writer/director Frank Darabont remains one of film’s most fascinating. Somehow, after crafting several genre scripts (for the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the Blob remake, and the Fly sequel), the soon to be cinematic savoir hooked up with George Lucas, working on the heralded Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Yet Darabont never forgot his earlier experiences crafting a short film out of King’s least supernatural story, the autobiographical cancer tale The Women in the Room. From there, he was determined to tackle another obscure tale from the fear master’s canon- the prison drama Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The results, considered by many to be a mid-90’s masterpiece, cemented his status as the ultimate interpreter of King’s work. Even the slightly bloated Green Mile couldn’t undo his reputation.
So when it was announced that Darabont would next take on the much beloved novella, The Mist, fans almost instantly began foaming. Even when less than impressive casting and the director’s decision to go ‘low budget’ were announced, the geeks were prepared for macabre manna. It was well worth the wait. The Mist is destined to go down as a modern horror classic. After all the pro and con Stephen King sniping is said and done, when expectations have been shattered and new realities firmly affixed, those who ever doubted Darabont’s ability will see the frightening forest for the desolate, deconstructionist trees. The filmmaker deserves a great deal of credit for what he’s accomplished here. Like Stephen Spielberg’s revisionist attempt at a realistic fantasy blockbuster with his reality based War of the World, the man behind this innovative inversion of King’s creepshow has crafted the most unconventional conventional b-movie ever.
When a powerful Nor’easter tears through a tiny Maine town, movie poster artist and family man David Drayton surveys the damage. A massive branch has torn through his studio, and a stubborn neighbor’s dead tree has destroyed his beautiful boathouse. After heading into town to buy supplies, he is stunned to see a local man running into the store, screaming. He claims that there is something in the mist, and as the patrons watch the fog roll over the parking lot, the screams of those stuck outside suggest that there may be a presence there. At first, some think it’s a joke. That includes the big city lawyer Brent Norton and local yokel Jim Grondin. On the other side of the situation is bitchy Bible thumper Mrs. Carmody. She’s convinced its Judgment Day, and suggests the shoppers use a blood sacrifice to appease a vengeful God. Between Drayton, who believes in truth, and Carmody, whose stirring up dissent, clear sides are drawn. About the only level headed individual is store clerk OIlie – that is, until the monsters actually arrive.
Everything you expect from this kind of story is here, - the otherworldly setup, the recognizable heroes and villains, the coincidental clashes, the big moment attacks, the smaller sequences of suspense. There’s even a nice amount of gore and some unexpected darkness. But Darabont is not content to simply let this opportunity go by without messing a little with the mannerisms. The Mist is so purposeful in how it thwarts genre ethos that it’s almost arrogant. There are times when you can literally see the director ducking the likely to lunge over into the unpredictable. This is a movie that has no music during its first 80 minutes, that never announces via sonic cues when the terror is about the strike. It’s also a film that lets its character’s core elements overstay their welcome. Good guys are almost too noble, baddies belligerent in their shocking psychotic cravenness.
Take Thomas Jane’s David Drayton. He’s the perfect hypocritical hero. Out of one side of his mouth comes a calming, ‘let’s work together’ sort of spiel. On the other hand, he gets his ‘followers’ together to horde food and plan an escape. Similarly, he warns others about apparent acts of altruistic sacrifice. Yet he’s typically the first to volunteer for any suicide mission. Though he’s more a b-list personality than a real blockbuster anchor, Jane is very good here. He balances both sides of his protagonist with Darabont-intended ease. Sitting on the other end of the situational scale is outright horror Marcia Gay Harden. Her Jesus loving Mrs. Carmody is not just some Gospel spewing shrew. She’s a manipulative cow, the perfect embodiment of the Jim Jones type of cult killer that King used originally to formulate the story. There are moments where you literally want to reach up from your seat and wring her self-righteous neck. That’s either great writing, great directing, great acting, or a combination of all three.
Indeed, what happens between people is far more potent than the various chaotic creature sequences in the film. When King wrote them, they were perfect mind’s eye payoff, gifts for the reader rapidly turning pages. In the film version of The Mist, they are the inevitable catalysts, the reasons for the characters challenging – and in some cases, harming – each other. Without them, we wouldn’t have the standoff between Drayton and Andre Braugher’s Norton. There wouldn’t be the reunion between young lovers Sally and AWOL GI Wayne…or the fatal finish to their relationship. We wouldn’t have the preaching, the plotting, the gun waving anarchy, or the fear-based fisticuffs. And then there are the fiends. Some may argue that they’re rather unbelievable in their computer generated junkiness, but that’s another Darabont objective. He wants his terror to be derived from seemingly silly entities. It makes the bigger ‘bugs’ waiting out in the mist that much more horrifying.
And here’s another clear caveat – don’t believe the half-baked hype about the “new ending” either. Yes, Darabont does stray rather significantly from King’s original conclusion, but there’s a reason for that. You can’t have an ambiguous send-off after 90 minutes of purposefully paced realism. Imagine if the characters that you’ve followed for nearly two hours simply got in a vehicle, plotted a course, and headed on down the highway. Fade out. Roll credits. There’d be much more fervor over such an anticlimactic moment than the angst being aimed at Darabont’s decision. Logic states that a bleak and rationality based narrative demands an equally dour and grim finish. Is it painful and purposefully harsh? Yes. Does it ruin the experience overall? Only if you’re the kind of person who can’t stare the truth in its desperate and ill-prepared face.
After all The Mist is not a movie about semi-super human men challenging the forces of darkness like invincible immortals. This is not the kind of film where antagonists heed the pleas of those wanting compromise or the reckless reel in their hasty reactions. Darabont has used King’s creative premise as the outline for a dissection of panic – how people react to it, and how our very humanity helps to fuel it. What we are witnessing is not really a horror movie, but a mock doc depiction of how man is more menacing than some interstellar interlopers. It’s an uncomfortable lesson to learn, and it may put some people off this otherwise remarkable motion picture. Frank Darabont may by now be a cliché, the first filmmaking name associated with the most successful genre author ever. But there is nothing formulaic, or false here. The Mist is magnificent.