Thursday, October 13, 2016

THE MIST


It’s a common idea, take a group of people and stick them into a situation they cannot escape. And it’s a common outcome, the group will collapse under the weight of their own shortcomings. It’s no different than any of George Romero’s zombie films. In the world of Romero, it isn’t the zombies that you need to worry about. It’s the person standing next to you. In Romeroland, the zombie apocalypse won’t bring about the total end of humanity. It’s the inability of people to sacrifice their ideologies and their inability to communicate with one another. That will be the final nail in the coffin for humanity. No matter how many glimpses of hope Romero gives us (and he does give us a few), there will be no chance of us escaping that particular doom. Unless of course we go it alone. But that would likely speed us towards our eventual demise, not prevent it.

Stephen King argued the same point in his 1980 novella The Mist, a gripping little story I first encountered as a 12 year old in his anthology Skeleton Crew. I always thought it would make a great film. In 2007, Frank Darabont proved me right. The novella wasn’t the first time King pulled out the “pressure cooker” scenario (he had done it before with The Long Walk in 1979) and it wouldn’t be the last time (he used it in his 2009 epic Under the Dome), but it was most effective here, the battle lines between the two parties involved was clearer and the action, when it came, was much more satisfactory. The novella format was the perfect format for this particular story. Not too long and not too short, the relatively short length provided the work with a kind of precision that was missing from many of King’s longer works at that time. Gone were the verbose descriptions and painfully complicated plotting. In their place was a true economy of storytelling, all told with the force of a runaway train. The ending struck me as vague at the time of my first reading, disappointing as my 12 year old mind wanted a concrete resolution. But I didn’t think any kind of resolution would have felt right anyway. Where do you go when the world has collapsed? Was there anywhere for David to go?

My reaction to Darabont’s adaptation was strong, unusually so given how familiar I was with the source material. I was impressed that he managed to convey the same sense of mounting tension that King had worked in so effortlessly in his novella. I was also impressed that Darabont didn’t play nice with his audience. As an atheist, I have no sympathies for Mrs. Carmody. Reading the novella, I started out merely disliking her. By the time Ollie put a bullet in her, I passionately hated her. One of the real joys of watching THE MIST was seeing Marcia Gay Harden bring Carmody to full-throated life on screen. I was convinced that the character would lapse into unintentional comedy or larger than life satire. I was convinced that Darabont would find some way to bring an element of humor to her character. I was pleased to no end that he didn’t. I would wager that 99.9% of the people in that auditorium with me were Christians of one stripe or another. All of them applauded when Ollie blew Carmody’s brains out. I have only ever experienced one film where a single event on-screen caused spontaneous, whole theater applause. This was that film.

I wondered about that moment on screen during my walk home from the theater. If something akin to THE MIST would have happened while I was in the theater… Had we all ran to the front doors to find the Earth overrun with hungry, meat-eating, transdimensional insects… Would any of those Christians I sat in the theater with responded to the event by thinking that it was the end of days? Would they have spiraled down the rabbit hole of religious fanaticism like poor, delusional Mrs. Carmody? Would I have found myself being fed to the ravenous monsters outside the lobby doors? Nothing can bring out our buried irrationality like fear and, as Lovecraft always told us, there is no greater fear than fear of the unknown.

Some people criticized the film when it was first released to theaters as little more than a nasty screed against religion. King is not an atheist, though he is non-denominational. The religion called out by the film is certainly Christian but it is far from the standard Christianity on display in most corners of the United States (though not entirely too far; there are plenty of otherwise decent believers who use their Bible to beat those who are not in agreement with their religious beliefs). The assault on the immovable dogma of Fundamentalism is undeniable here, but the claim that this is somehow an anti-religion film is off the mark. Nonetheless, it is this conflict between fire and brimstone Christianity and rationality that provides the film with its dramatic backbone and it holds no punches in drawing the conflict out to its obvious, bloody ends. The creature attacks, spectacular though they may be, come off as mere distractions. That is not to say though bits don’t have a place here or that their inclusion weakens the material. Neither of those things is true, but the really interesting part of THE MIST is the human interaction and not the creature attacks.

Lastly, no review of THE MIST would be complete without a brief discussion of the films ending. Going back to my earlier statements, I had no idea how this story could have concluded properly. King’s novella ends with our survivors driving off into the mist. Nothing further is written. Darabont’s decision to end the film with a suicide pact seems logical (what else is there to do?), but the final plot reversal feels overly pessimistic and cruel. But that’s kind of the point. It still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It just seems so unnecessarily cruel. Not to the characters, mind you, but to me, to you, to the audience. But then the clarity comes in and retrospectively it makes a kind of sense. For the past two hours we have watched what happens when reactionary impulses take control, when otherwise normal people leap to ridiculous conclusions or take actions out of fear and despair. And we’ve seen what can come from those decisions. No one is exempt from that. No one escapes those consequences.

Not even our hero.

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