[20 November 2007]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Two movies bump up against one another in Stephen King’s The Mist. One focuses on the intricate emotional and political relations among a group of characters trapped in a grocery store when the titular effect rolls in. Alternately prosaic and perverse, it conjures a range of fears and reactions, its strangest and most compelling illustration offered by Tom Jane’s thoughtful performance as movie poster painter David Drayton. The second film is more or less about the mist, its likely causes and consequences, reduced to a series of so-so special effects posing as downright inane monsters. Neither of these movies is quite satisfying, and neither comes up with a good enough reason for existing alongside the other.
The movie begins with a conflict between neighbors in Castle Rock, Maine. Following a raucous storm, during which thunder roars and trees fall, David finds the lawyer who lives next door, Brent (Andre Braugher), muttering profanities as he is unable to start his chainsaw. The men share a troubled past involving property boundaries and lawsuits, so the fact that Brent’s tree has now smashed into David’s boathouse makes the encounter tense, until David does the right thing and says he’s sorry to see the man’s decimated Mercedes. With this small gesture of reconciliation, they agree to drive into town together in search of supplies, along with David’s adorable nine-year-old son, Billy (Nathan Gamble).
At the store, they’re confronted by Dan (Jeffrey DeMunn), bloody-nosed and stunned. He’s just seen his friend grabbed up and disappeared, he gasps. “There’s something in the mist!” Before you can say, “What mist?”, the camera pulls out to show the dense, white front, filling the parking lot and pressing up against the windows. Now comes the scares and troubles, and, you might imagine, knowing this is a Frank Darabont translation of a 27-year-old Stephen King novella, the clunking metaphors. Though Rohn Schmidt’s smart handheld camera initially keeps a distance from the inevitable explicitness, numerous manifestations emerge in time (lots of time, as the film runs almost two hours).
Once the townies slam the doors shut and decide they need to stay inside, the central divide among the erstwhile shoppers has to do with belief. In its first instance, this has to do with belief in the mist’s monsters, whatever it was that grabbed Dan’s friend and slammed him around enough to draw blood. David, store manager Ollie (Toby Jones), and a couple of mechanics (including the flinty Jim [William Sadler]), sort of become witnesses, when they see the bagboy dragged off through the loading dock door by giant, spiny tentacles. When they bring back word to the front of the store, however (“What we saw was impossible,” David laments, knowing he’ll never convince the non-witnesses of what happened), they’re immediately confronted by skeptics, chief among them, Brent.
It gets worse. At first the typology looks confined to “rational” (this would be the lawyer’s case, as Brent the big city outsider thinks that David, et. al. mean to taunt him) and “experiential” (the guys with the bagboy’s blood on their hands). “I’ve seen you talking behind my back,” Brent says, “how you stick together.” Immediately, this opposition turns more complicated, as Brent confronts a crowd of Caucasians, and his “followers” include the film’s only other black civilians (a trio of soldiers about to “ship out” range from beige to Hispanic to black, and tend to keep to themselves, huddling in corners and avoiding contact with the panicking crowd). However coincidental such casting may be, the visual effect is striking, the politics either subtle or unconsidered. “This is how it is,” David states. “There are things in the mist and they’re dangerous.”
As you’ve seen what he’s seen, you’re inclined to believe this believer. The second version of the opposition shifts the terms again, drawing a much brighter line around the concept of belief. Not only does Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) believe in the monsters, following a few bloody, no-doubts-about-it encounters, but she also imputes Old Testament meaning to them. They are, she declares, God’s will, retribution for the many and ongoing sins she’s been watching for years. Now she knows, the Lord is speaking through her, and before you can say “Jerry Falwell,” she’s whipped up a desperate-for-explanations following in the canned vegetables aisle. Looking for someone to blame, and thus grant some faux order to the frightening nonsense they’re living, this crowd listens to Carmody’s shrill recitations of Biblical verses. They’re also prone to agree to her designations of who might be sacrificed to the “beasts,” who lurk in the mist obediently until a well-timed claw or snapping jaw might usefully re-alarm the victims to be.
These include some usual suspects, including Carmody’s counterpart, the kind, compassionate new teacher in town, Amanda (Laurie Holden), who spends most of the film looking after Billy so David can go forth, and the pretty checkout girl Sally (Alexa Davalos), whose brief and desperate exchange of kisses with Private Jessup (Sam Witwer), leads more or less directly to her dire punishment. As Carmody ascends, David receives welcome moral support from Ollie (possessed of some surprising martial skills) and retired teacher Irene (Frances Sternhagen, and thank goodness for her).
The Mist‘s moral and physical geographies are familiar: inside and outside, good and deranged. David’s choices at each moment are shaped by his belief in what he sees and his distrust of explanations. In this, the movie offers a typical gloss on how fear makes populations strangely obedient, willing to accept any explanation that exonerates them and blames someone else. Both the movies in The Mist indict blind belief, but neither quite escapes the weight of its clichés.