Friday, November 23, 2007

A Film Not To Be Mist

It’s a rare thing that I leave a multiplex movie these days utterly blown away, but that was certainly how I felt walking out of Frank Darabont’s The Mist on Thanksgiving night. All I can say is wow! The film gets practically everything right . . .

Hard to believe it’s been so long, but I read the original Stephen King story a little over 20 years ago. It quickly became my personal favorite from his catalog, only overshadowed in the intervening time by his Dark Tower series. The story is a pretty standard B-movie premise. A group of people gets trapped in a grocery store when a mysterious mist enshrouds their town. They quickly discover that there are deadly creatures lurking outside, which may have been unleashed at a military complex nearby. The rest of the tale involves their attempts to survive and escape. Been there, done that. However, what makes The Mist so memorable is the conflict among the people, rather than the battle with the creatures. Really the supernatural part of the tale is somewhat of an afterthought. Much more time is spent on character development, and how polite society breaks down in extreme situations. And boy does it break down!

In the small group trapped within the store, several factions emerge. You have the normal folks led by David Drayton (the book’s hero), the religious cult led by Mrs. Carmody, the “Flat Earth Society” who refuse to acknowledge the reality of the situation, and a small military contingent who have an inkling of the source of the mist. Each of these groups have their own outlook and plans for action, and needless to say they do not mesh with one another. As a result it becomes apparent that the human threat is just as dangerous, if not more so, than that posed by the monsters. While it is a necessarily dark tale, King nevertheless provides us with a cautious sense of optimism through the selfless acts of several characters and a hopeful, if ambiguous, ending. It’s an engrossing story, and I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t read it (particularly fun if you’re a Lovecraft fan as well).

As a huge admirer of King’s story, I was quite excited to learn a film adaptation was finally coming out. It has been in development for quite a while, early on discussed as a television project (with Michael J. Fox as the lead). Don’t get me wrong, television can sometimes produce great things (e.g. Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot), but I was glad to hear it was going theatrical. I was even more pleased to hear that Darabont was at the helm. His earlier adaptations of King, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, were very well handled (even if they weren’t at the top of my list as King stories). Given the strong points of those adaptations, I thought he would nail the characters and human element of the story, while also capturing the proper tone (if not providing a spot on adaptation – which is difficult if not impossible in translating books to the screen). For the most part Darabont has done just that.

The film manages to communicate practically all of the significant elements of the book, and absolutely gets the human element right. This is not a monster movie. Yes, there are a few battles with the beasties here and there, but they are just as they are in the book – window dressing. The film, like the book, is about the people and their struggle with each other. The monsters are just there to provide the setup. A different movie, the Hollywood-ized version, would feature epic battles and probably delve into the military experiment that created the situation. You’d probably get a cross between Jurassic Park and Stargate. Here you have a 2-hour film devoted to folks who lose their cool in a supermarket. Which is as it should be.

All of this could not work of course without fine performances, and there is not a bad one in the bunch. From Thomas Jane as Drayton, to Marcia Gay Harden’s Mrs. Carmody, all are well realized and completely believable. The most important aspect is that character reactions to the situation seem genuine, and they certainly do. It is easy to see oneself in these people, and that’s part of what gives the story and the film such power. The only minor complaint is that Mrs. Carmody’s ranting seems a bit over-the-top at times, but it still works (and to be fair it was the same way in the source material). Interestingly, Carmody’s sermons manage to tie in several current issues ranging from stem cell research to the Iraq War. The film is not preachy about those, nor does it take sides. Instead it effectively shows how our conflicts at the micro level (the store), reflect our debates at the macro level (societal norms). This was not part of King’s tale so much, but it works nicely here.

Okay. Below, I’m going to get into a discussion of the film’s tone and there may be a few spoilers along the way. If you don’t want any hints about the book or film’s endings, stop here and skip down to the next section of bold text which indicates the end of spoiler country.

While Darabont has done a masterful job of translating the characters and plot points, where he strikes off on his own is the tone of the film. As I mentioned, although the book is somewhat grim, it nevertheless gives us a few reasons to hope. Our “heroes” all demonstrate elements that engender faith in humanity (e.g. love, compassion, and sacrifice), and the ending suggests that all is not lost. Not so in the cinematic version. Incredibly, although the film treads all the same territory as the book, Darabont has crafted it in such a way that it is unrelentingly grim. It’s difficult to pin down why, but I would say it has to do with a shift in emphasis. Whereas the book saw Drayton and others heroically fighting back against the threat, and passionately arguing for reason amongst the factions in the store, here those efforts seem utterly futile. Although they were no more successful in the printed tale, for whatever reason they provided some ray of light. Here we see in no uncertain terms that humanity would be doomed, and the voice of reason crushed in the face of chaos.

And then there’s the ending. Folks, this may be the single most disturbing ending I’ve ever seen in a film mainstream or otherwise. There are just a handful of films that I would say have “haunted” me after leaving the theater. Picking one that raised the bar highest is difficult, but I would say David Fincher’s Se7en is right up there. There are others with “downer” endings to be sure, but this will give you a frame of reference. The Mist makes Se7en look like a feelgood, adventure film. I’m telling you, the ending of The Mist is so uncompromising, it’s nothing short of a miracle that it made it to the screen. In the span of five minutes Darabont layers on disturbing revelation after disturbing revelation. I had heard going in that he had deviated from King’s story with a darker ending, and I had a guess as to what he might do . . . and he did just that. But then he kept going, and by the time the credits roll all you are left with is shell shock and utter despair. Perhaps the only thing left he could have done to make it more unsettling, was to flash back to the store and show everyone getting rescued. Otherwise, he has crafted the most disturbing ending possible.

Having said all this, you might think I’m displeased with the tone or the ending – not at all. I think Darabont has made something different from the source, which I loved, and utterly amazing. If you want to see a movie that thrills you and leaves you with faith in the human spirit, do not see The Mist. It is the polar opposite of such a film (e.g. The Shawshank Redemption). What he has managed to produce is something much more rare – a disturbing, emotionally devastating genre film. Anyone can tack on a “downer” ending to a film and then claim it’s “powerful,” or perhaps “brave” on the part of the filmmakers. That’s been done. What makes such an approach work is if the audience has been made to care what happens to the characters. And here you care. You REALLY care. Believe me, I’m as jaded a filmgoer as they come, and this one had quite an impact.

One might argue that Darabont has gone overboard with the ending by heaping on so much grief in those final moments. That he threw in everything but the kitchen sink just for the sake of doing so. I would agree, except that he ties it back to the overall theme of the failure of our humanity in extreme situations. How does he do this? With one simple shot. He shows the mother who asked for an escort at the beginning of the film pass by on a military transport with her children. Everyone in the store failed her, including Drayton, and they have reaped what they sowed. Maybe that’s a bit unfair, after all Drayton was responsible for his own son, but there’s some truth there. That moment gives the ending a depth that clarifies it is there for a thematic purpose, rather than for the simple motive of pushing emotional buttons.

End of spoilers.

Truly, I can’t recommend this film strongly enough. To me there are just a few “perfect” horror films, and this one comes very close to hitting that mark. I wouldn’t mind seeing Carmody dialed down just a bit, and sometimes there is a little too much CGI (although I think it was mostly well done). Nevertheless, this is not only an extremely solid adaptation of the source material, but an amazing alternate take on the themes explored in the story. Darabont has crafted one of the most gut-wrenching horror films of any era, but more importantly a film that transcends its trappings to say something about “us.” It’s not for everyone (definitely don’t go if you’re easily upset), but if you do brave The Mist you won’t soon forget the experience.


Anonymous said...

Jim -
Based on your recommendation, I'm going to have to check it out. I re-read the short story last year, and found it somewhat thin. Glad to hear that Darabont has taken it to the next level.

Jim Blanton said...

Hey Joe,
It's been a while since I read the story, and even though it's just a novella, there's something about it that stuck with me. Having said that, I can see how it might be interpreted as thin. I think what makes it for me is the depiction of societal breakdown within that confined space.

In cinematic terms, I've always been drawn to films with this sort of scenario (e.g. Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13, etc.), what John Muir would call a "seige film." The novella recalls these, and that's probably why I like it so much.

However, the film version of The Mist really is a different animal than the book. The emphasis on the "breakdown" is much more prominent, and impacted me in a way the novella never did. I think you'll like it - and hey, it's much better than The Mangler : )

Kim said...

I've never read the story, so I had no idea what I was in for. I left the theater last night literally shaking. Your use of the term 'shell-shock' is NOT ballyhoo here, it's a fact. If you make it to the end of this film you deserve a gold medal - or a stiff drink...perhaps both. ;-)

The last time I was this distraught by a film was when I saw "Requiem for a Dream" - seeing it once was enough, I never need to see it again. "The Mist" is right up there; I don't know that I could stomach that again, especially now that I know how it ends. Funny, you'd think knowing what was coming would make it easier to bear.

Jim Blanton said...

Hey Kim,
Yeah, Requiem for a Dream is definitely in the same class as this. The thing about that one is I had a fair idea it was going to end very badly (because things start off that way). With The Mist I was taken pretty much by complete surprise (both with the tone and ending). Maybe that's part of its power - you just don't expect a movie featuring CGI spiders to affect you so profoundly : )

As to whether I'll watch it again, I'm sure I will. But I agree with you, knowing what's coming makes it no better . . . probably makes it worse. Interestingly, I think I wouldn't watch Requiem again because it's so unpleasant (yet brilliant) throughout. It challenges you, but it's never enjoyable (nor should it be). With The Mist, there is a dash of thrill ride which makes it a bit more palatable for repeat viewings. Even so, I'm still amazed at how shaky (like you said) it left me, and my thoughts still wander back to it days later. Really one of a kind.

craig said...


Just saw this tonight, and I admit that it was a very hard film to watch.

I agree that the very real horror of this film is that the people are far more of a threat than the beasties. All they would have to do is work together and things would work out...which is pretty much how real life is. However, once you add in people's emotions, and even more damaging, their quests for personal advancement and power, the situation would quickly unravel. I think the scariest part is that this is EXACTLY how things would go down. Another fact that is very disturbing is that it would go about as fast too. I reaed a quote once that we are 3 meals away from the end of civilization...or as Thomas Jane said" long as the machines work, and you can call 911."

Finally, I have seen people that make me think that Mother Carmody isn't nearly overwritten as you might think- and how scary is that???

Jim Blanton said...

Hey Craig,
Unfortunately I think you're absolutely right, that this is exactly how things would go down. We all like to think that our better parts will surface during an extreme crisis, but it's probably unlikely.

I remember going to a fast food place a few days after Hurricane Isabel hit, and it was absolute chaos. It felt like I was living in the world of Mad Max . . . and it was a relatively moderate event! Shudder to think had we all been trapped in there together for an extended period.

That being said, you see lots of inspiring stories coming out of the tragedies of the past several years that give one a sliver of hope. Just don't go to The Mist expecting to find such a sliver.