Saturday, November 24, 2007

"The Mist" Dissected

Well, hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. I went to my in-laws' house for turkey, football and the Flying Schnauzer Show, and then went to my folks' house for a couple hours to say happy birthday to my brother who turned 25 on Thanksgiving Day. All in all, good times.

The day before, the wife and I went to the movies to take in not only the much and long-anticipated "The Mist", but also the much and long-anticipated "No Country for Old Men." I don't know when next the stars will align to provide so perfect a day of moviegoing, but my guess it will either be many years or never. 98% of "The Mist" was great, and 100% of "No Country" was genius. Let's get into it.

1.) "The Mist." I reread the original King novella a month ago to reacquaint myself with the story before the movie came out. I hadn't read it for years, but predictably it holds up. Aside from giving the movie a definitive ending and a few other odds and ends, Darabont's "Mist" is a beat for beat retelling of its source material, which, as Darabont knows well, is the best way to approach King's best material. (Not so much something like "Dreamcatcher." William Goldman who adapted that novel, would have done well to rework the hell out of that novel.)

Thomas Jane plays David Drayton, a movie poster artist in the mold of Drew Struzan, the king of hand-painted movie posters. ("In the mold of" is actually kind of weak, actually, as the film opens with Drayton putting the finishing touches on a movie poster painted by Drew Struzan. Drayton kind of IS Struzan.) A weird storm blows across the lake and damages Drayton's lakehouse, sending him, his young son and his jurist neighbor (played by the always interesting Andre Braugher) to the grocery store the following morning for some supplies. They aren't there for 10 minutes before Darabont-movie stalwart Jeffrey Demunn bursts into the store with a bloody nose and shouts, "There's something in the mist!" For the characters, hell is on the way. For the audience, the fun's about to start.

What follows is an intensely satisfying amalgam of 50's B-movie and and 70's disaster movie, all shot to reflect our current dark and fearful era. What is happening outside is, of course, crazy and implausible: in rural Maine, a secret military venture called the Arrowhead Project has managed to breach the barrier between the dimensions unleashing an all-encompassing mist into our world, filled with an assortment of of tentacled ghoulies and nasty flying bug-things. With the basic premise thusly laid out, it's the movie's job to make the implausible seem as real as, well, a trip to the grocery store. I think Darabont succeeds, but it's a high-wire act, with most of the balancing work being done by the actors. For me, part of the tension in the film comes from worrying whether or not the film was going to suddenly fall flat on its face because the director asked too much of its actors. Part of this is certainly a function of how fast Darabont shot this movie, and how far out of his directorial comfort zone he went to shoot "The Mist", which was filmed in a cinema verite style. Happily, everyone's up to the job, including Marcia Gay Harden as Ms. Carmody, the Old Testament-spouting shrew who turns out to be as dangerous as the beasties on the other side of the plate glass. I was worried about her being too over-the-top after seeing the trailer, but the way the script lets her transform from deluded zealot to full-bore inciter of religious violence is deftly executed.

The only problem I had with "The Mist", is the definitive ending Darabont added to the film.

[BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD!]

The novella originally had no hard ending. In a recent NYTimes article, King said, “I thought of ending ‘The Mist’ by having [the surviving characters] come out in the sunlight,” Mr. King said recently. “But I choked at that, and instead I wrote the kind of ending my mother used to hate. She called them Alfred Hitchcock endings: You make up the ending yourself.”

The new Darabontian ending, however, gets the Stephen King seal of approval. "After he read the screenplay, Mr. King sent [Darabont] an e-mail message saying that he would have ended the story this way himself if only he’d thought of it."

I have to say that I think King circa the late seventies had it closer to right then his 2007-self. So here it is; the new ending to "The Mist."

[LAST SPOILER ALERT! I AM SERIOUSLY ABOUT TO RUIN THE ENDING!]

David Drayton, his son, the pretty lady from the store, and two old folks make good their escape from the grocery store in Drayton's SUV. After many miles and many ghastly visions, they run out of gas. Drayton has a gun and four bullets. They are not within sight of a gas station. They can't go hunting for fuel because the beasties will quickly descend and hand out excruciatingly painful deaths to everyone. After an appropriate number of beats, Darabont cuts to a wide shot of the SUV. Four shots ring out. Everyone but Drayton is dead, shot by Drayton. Drayton is beyond inconsolable. He steps out into the mist and goads the creatures to come and tear him apart. None appear. Then: strange noises from the mist, getting closer. Drayton prepares for the end. And then a tank rolls out of the fog, followed by yet more tanks and soldiers wearing gas masks. Drayton watches as the soldiers use flamethrowers to burn the nests and webs left behind by the mist creatures as the mist begins to dissipate. Drayton falls to his knees and screams "no!" as the camera booms up and the film ends.

I think all of us horror nerds and Stephen King geeks who, every now and again, attempt something creative themselves, struggle with two warring impulses. On one hand, we want to do stuff that's excellent, that everyone will like and hail as worthy contributions to the culture. But there is also that impulse to say to hell with all those effete snobs who turn their noses up at horror, who dismiss all horror novels as "penny dreadfuls", all horror movies as "populist trash", the impulse that gives the artist permission to do pure, no-frills, no apologies horror. And by that I mean all the gratuitous gore, cheap thrills, and homage to earlier (and not always good) works by the late greats that "true horror" signifies. Sometimes these warring impulses work together to create something that is both excellent and also true to the conventions of the genre. But sometimes these warring impulses result in moments in a movie or novel or comic, that embrace, gleefully, pure bad taste, and are, in fact, bad. I think this new ending is an example of the latter. With this new ending Darabont makes a movie that works as a straight horror movie, an examination of the perils of group-think, and a parable of our current post-9/11 era into an extended episode of "The Twilight Zone."

It's funny because in writing about this ending, I find myself of two minds about it: the part of me that reads and enjoys so-called "literary fiction" scoffs at Darabont's ham-fisted ending. But the King-apologist, low-brow horror advocate, "Sicuani" part of me thinks that, in its way, Darabont's ending works. As a comment on humanity, Drayton's "mercy killing" of his son and the other three expands upon and deepens the broader indictment Darabont levels at humankind in the rest of the film. With this ending Darabont asserts that human beings are instinctually violent creatures, and that when faced with bad options, humans will always resort to violence, even against the people they love.

But, to completely strain any continuing interest in this post, I have to go on to say that my objections to this ending go beyond the borderline-silly way it was shot (did Drayton really have to scream "No!" into the heavens? Did the camera really have to boom up?), and to how well this ending fits conforms to the "rules" of the movie that Darabont himself laid out.

[SPOILERS CONTINUE TO ABOUND!]

Case in point. As the column of tanks roll by in the final scene, an open-air personnel carrier rolls by with glum-faced civilians riding in back. We recognize one of them as a woman who was the first to leave the grocery store after the mist had rolled in. She'd left her children unsupervised at home and couldn't bear to leave them to face the mist by themselves. She goes out and vanishes into the mist. But when she is revealed to the audience at the end as a survivor, accompanied by her two children who she clearly succeeded in saving, something feels off. The mist is teeming with creatures of all different species, all of them capable of taking human life. Time and time again, within seconds of a person stepping out of the grocery store into the mist, the mist-creatures swarm and devour that person. Within seconds. But here's this woman who not only survived her walk out of the parking lot, but survived the walk all the way back to her house? And then whatever journey she and her kids had to make to get to the military people? It breaks the rules.

But even more than this, the appearance of Order in the form of an organized military response, and the dissipation of the mist does not seem to jibe with the rest of the film.

In the scene directly preceding the end scene, Drayton and his cohorts watch in awe as a mist-monster as tall as a skyscraper lumbers across the road. (Incidentally, this was the scene I was most looking forward to in the film and Darabont and Co. nailed it.) But the unspoken implication of this behemoth's appearance is that the mist is no temporary calamity. The mist is the true End of the World. After something like that has walked the Earth, how are people supposed to return to their normal lives? If something as fundamentally wrong as that creature can exist on the same plane as regular Joes like Drayton, then the quotidian reality Drayton had known all his life was now a thing of the past. Along with the grandeur of the scene, I loved this moment in the novella because it was King placing a period at the end of humanity. Which is why I don't think King would have chosen Darabont's ending "if only he'd thought of it." It didn't fit with the story he'd written.

And so, in my view, the dissipation of the fog contradicts the implication of the behemoth and is, in this respect, a false ending. Though I greatly respect Darabont for going so dark with the ending, I think sacrificed a more "true" ending in order to make the parable aspects of "The Mist" more timely. By showing the audience that Drayton badly overreacted to the threat of the mist-creatures, Darabont is saying that the U.S. is similarly overreacting to the real, but not life-threatening threat posed by international terrorism. I agree with his point, but I don't think making it was necessary to the film, nor do I think making that point justified his breaking so many of his own rules.

This is going to sound goofy, but the new ending aside, "The Mist" is awesome. Definitely a new Top 5 Stephen King adaptation and an eventual DVD purchase for me. Though the ending is, in my view, wrong-headed, this fact shouldn't disqualify the rest of the movie, which is great fun to watch and, dare I say, thoughtful and disturbing. George Saunders wrote an essay on one of his favorite books, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", and called it one of the best books over written. But, he went on to write, the ending is absolutely terrible, and inarguably so. I don't think "The Mist" is one of the best films ever made, but, like "Huckleberry Finn", I also don't think the bad ending is reason enough for anyone to throw the baby out with the bathwater. So check it out before it slips out of theaters, which, judging by "The Mist"'s middling performance at the box office over the weekend, may be sooner than is merited.

I'll get to "No Country for Old Men" another day. I don't think anyone reading this needs me to provide them with reasons to see this one anyway.

5 comments:

harwell said...

No Country was great - look forward to your review when I don't have to skip 2/3 of it for spoilers. Glad to hear the Mist is satisfying since those trailers really painted a not-so-good looking picture. Saw Roeper and his guest review it and I believe he called it the best B movie of the year. Sounds like you guys are on the same page.

jim p. said...

The ending of the novella is what made it stick with me for the 15 years since i'd read it, and what made me buy the ticket to go see the movie. Well, and the giant monster scene you mentioned. But it's this possibility that the world has changed fundamentally and now we have to change how we see it, and keep surviving, that i miss. The loss of it was too great a price to pay for the political allegory.

Also, hi brian.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bjorn said...

Dear Brian,

Thank you so much for your insight. I was very moved to read your post - you put it all so beautifully! Thank you...this really made my day. I loved the novella. I grew up with S. King's books, and this novella was always special to me... I saw the movie yesterday, and was deeply disturbed by the ending...WHY?! :-/
Your pointers made so much sense. Sending you my warmest and very best greetings from Sweden.
Regards/Björn