Writer Shauna Cross and director Drew Barrymore’s Whip It is frustratingly averse to dramatic conflict. Rather than finding resolutions, or allowing issues to evolve in interesting ways, it skates around nearly every incident:
Bliss’ (Elliot Page) love interest at first appears to have cheated on her, but in fact didn’t, so the worst you can say about him is that he’s not a phone person.
Bliss’ mother (Marcia Gay Harden) fairly easily comes around to supporting her.
The obstacle of Bliss being too young to compete is totally defused by a convenient piece of exposition; all she needs is a parental note.
Despite the inherent physical violence of roller derbies, we never see Bliss act aggressively herself. Was this a choice, to make the character not seem unsympathetic?
Perhaps I missed something, but it was unclear to me if the beauty pageant and the tournament were on the same date. Aside from the societal pressure to be either a beauty queen or a tomboy, why couldn’t she do both?
Bliss’ charismatic friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) makes her seem rather passive in comparison. She’s more defined by what she doesn’t want to do (be a beauty queen) than what she does (which is… we don’t know), and instead she kind of just mopes around. Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World features more richly drawn character studies of the aimless slacker teenage years.
Has writer/director Frank Darabont been weighed down by the heavy legacy of his first feature film? The Shawshank Redemption remains one of the most popular movies ever made, if not quite (yet?) accepted into the canon. The Mist, after The Green Mile, is Darabont’s third Stephen King adaptation, so far only having made only one feature not derived from a King work. After two prison yarns (one set very much in the real world, the other with a dash of the supernatural), Darabont now turns to one of King’s more characteristically gruesome horror tales.
King writes at great length about classic horror movies in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, and The Mist squarely fits into one kind of classic b-movie structure. We open in a seemingly bucolic lakeside town with simmering tensions between local residents and wealthier weekenders summering in lovely lakeside homes. A mysterious, mostly unseen, and definitely hostile alien force traps a random assortment of local personalities in a supermarket.
The horror works best before we actually see any evidence of the supernatural; for example, a character bolts into the store, full of nervous but not yet terrified citizens, crying the simultaneously eerie and hilarious line “There’s something in the mist!” For home viewers, a big reveal was spoiled right in the DVD menus: one of the adversaries is a very biblical swarm of giant beastly locusts.
Like virtually every zombie movie ever made, a cross-section of society is trapped in a confined location, under siege by unstoppable forces. The microcosm includes representatives of all the usual suspects, including a top New York City lawyer (because we all know NYC sharks are more venal than the regular kind) Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), a couple of good ol’ boys, the town cutie pie, a few handsome young lads from the nearby military base, and the resident looney fundamentalist Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden).
The Mist is not above another classic horror movie cliche: the virginal good girl kisses a boy and immediately dies horribly in the very next scene. The heroes that arise are, of course, unlikely: a grocery bagger (an interesting character with a lot left up to us to fill in: he’s not a young man, and he’s got brains and skills, so how did he end up in such a dead-end job?) and a relatively wealthy artist David (an outsider to the town, viewed as elitist).
We first see “our hero” (more on that later) David (Thomas Jane) in the very first shot. He’s an illustrator of movie posters: I spotted three shout-outs to genre movies both actual and potential: Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, and Stephen King’s own Dark Tower. He’s a macho, badass painter, using the back of his own hand as a palette, and bitching about studios cobbling together cheap posters in Photoshop.
Speaking of craven movie studios, sometimes studios whitewash action and horror movies to cater to more lucrative PG-13 audiences (like Blade III: Trinity, extraordinarily lame & tame compared to Guillermo Del Toro’s outrageously gory Blade II – vampire autopsy, anyone?). The Mist is one of the few R-rated horror movies I’ve seen that might have been better with less gore and profanity. Most especially the profanity – I’m certainly guilty of salty language in my own vocabulary, but the overall F-bomb count in The Mist is so absurdly high that it becomes eye-rolling; as if the filmmakers were deliberately striving for a record.
Overall, I’d have to say I really did not care for the movie, finding it overwritten. At numerous points, characters explicate the plot, elapsed time, and character arcs – to paraphrase an example: “It’s only been two days, and Mrs. Carmody has already turned everybody against us… in only two days!” It’s also too reliant on CG gore for a story than depends on the horror of the unseen (also where M. Night Shyamalan’s otherwise great Signs falls down). But the best bits of the movie are squeezed between the CG set pieces, and the entire affair is redeemed by an utterly astonishing ending.
Although I normally don’t concern myself with spoilers on this blog, it would be cruel of me to reveal the ending here. Suffice to say, it’s impossible to imagine how a script this bleak was financed and distributed (by Dimension Films). I also wish I had seen the movie in theaters so I could see firsthand how an average audience would react to such an ending. The big downer at the end of Cloverfield did not go over well with audiences, to say the least, and The Mist makes that one look positively wimpy.
Like Signs and Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, The Mist depicts a massive alien invasion from the perspective of regular folk, as opposed to the global view taken by movies such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and Independence Day. But The Mist has a truer ending than any of these examples. The core theme is of the roles people assume under extreme duress. Their illusions about themselves are amplified and they believe their own myth. Just as the fundamentalist Mrs. Carmody compensates for a lifetime of exile from healthy human interaction by elevating herself into a demagogue (I’m reminded of the characterization of the young Adolf Hitler in the movie Max, as he first finds the mass adulation he desires as he rallies a crowd into a racist frenzy), David falls all too well into the role of hero. He never complains when people turn to him for strength and leadership.
The so-called “hicks” that fight him in the beginning of the film were right; he does think he’s smarter than everybody else. In movies, he’s exactly the kind of guy other characters automatically defer to in dire situations: So-and-so’s dying of third degree burns? Tell David! What do we do next? Ask David!
The utter demolition of the stock hero character type is so surprisingly strong that it’s practically subversive. I had thought postmodern genre films had petered out after their late-90s golden age of Scream, Starship Troopers, and Wild Things. But The Mist is a new entry in the postmodern genre cycle, in the sense that it comments critically upon the horror movie genre, and yet still actually is a horror movie. The Mist may be a monster movie, but it’s not about a Thing, an Alien, or a Creature from a black lagoon; it reveals the standard hero character to be a kind of monster himself.
Like many young men cursed with a privileged life of education and time to think for themselves, Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) wanted only a vaguely defined “truth” and to not have to rely on anyone. Synthesizing his reading of Henry Thoreau and Jack London, he imagined for himself a life of self-sufficiency in the wilderness. So McCandless dropped out of society in the summer of 1990, leaving behind all connections whatsoever, including his legal name and identity. Despite his absolutely clean break, he never seemed to view this transformation as permanent; he mentions more than once that he may write a book when he “comes back.”
Interestingly for a young man, he also seems to make a point of avoiding even temporary female companionship. He rejects the friendship of Jan (Katherine Keener), and abandons his younger sister Carine (Jena Malone), the person with whom he apparently had the closest bond. Carine narrates the film, with total sympathy for his beliefs and actions. But even she points out that he acted with “characteristic immoderation.”
McCandless died alone in August 1992. He remains a controversial figure (should his asceticism be admired, or was he a fool?), and his solitary death the subject of an intriguing mystery (was he really trapped with food poisoning, or did he allow himself to die slowly as a form of passive suicide?). This film interpretation of his story does make it clear that he was a privileged kid who hadn’t truly suffered. While drinking with new buddy Wayne (Vince Vaughn), he lets slip his adolescent belief that one of the worst forms of tyranny in the world is “parents.” As we see, his parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) are all too human and not half as monstrous as he imagines. So perhaps his adventure was more than an idealistic reaction to mere money, society, and materialism. He was also running away from the “free” things that living in society affords, what everyone craves in life: family, friends, and lovers.
A note on the music: just as McCandless looks backwards for literary inspiration, he also has antiquated taste in music for a kid living in the early 90s. His new name for himself, “Supertramp” puns on the classic rock band and his new lifestyle. He christens his new and final home, an abandoned bus, after The Who’s “Magic Bus.” For the music of the film itself, director Sean Penn drew upon two musicians that made names for themselves in the early 90s: Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (who contributed songs to Dead Man Walking), and guitarist/composer Michael Brook. Vedder’s songs for the film were released as an album, but Brook’s excellent score is also available digitally.
Into the Wild is yet another in a long series of films I’ve seen recently that are based on books I haven’t read (The Kite Runner, No Country for Old Men, The Namesake, The Assassination of Jesse James, etc.). But even so, I believe I can detect a few remnants of the film’s prose origins as John Krakauer’s book:
the film is broken into chapters with onscreen titles
the visual device of superimposed text from McCandless’ own journals provides a second voice
episodic feel – but that’s justified by the events/phases of his journey – he keeps making clean breaks every time he comes close to settling in somewhere