It's Scary When Fogbound Meet Hidebound in 'The Mist'

100 percent chance of monsters: Thomas Jane and Nathan Gamble are plagued by pernicious precipitation in the parable based on a Stephen King tale.
100 percent chance of monsters: Thomas Jane and Nathan Gamble are plagued by pernicious precipitation in the parable based on a Stephen King tale. (By Ralph Nelson -- Weinstein Co.)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

More political allegory than horror movie, Frank Darabont's new film should have liberals crooning, "Play 'The Mist' for me."

That's because in his account of a violent invasion from another world, the true villain turns out not to be the flying, insectoid, dinosaurian human flesh-eaters, but an irresponsible religious schemer who uses the crisis to take power and instill her crude religious practices (including human sacrifice) on the gullible masses.

But before you accuse Darabont of taking his talking points from, it should be noted he could just as easily be on the media alert list. The filmmaker also endorses a powerful theme in conservative politics -- he has fashioned "The Mist" into an argument not only for the Second Amendment but for the locus of the fracas itself, the handgun, as a necessary tool for survival by the weak against the strong.

On top of that, you get to watch Truman Capote jump over a giant tentacle from Outer Space!

Okay, it's not Truman Capote, it's an actor who once played him brilliantly, Toby Jones, and who still looks like him. And the giant tentacle isn't from Outer Space, it's from somewhere the movie never makes you believe in. Still, who can resist the temptation to shout, at least inwardly, "Go, Tru, go! Leap that slimy sucker!"

Darabont is something of a Stephen King specialist -- his best film was "The Shawshank Redemption"; he also did "The Green Mile" -- and this time he's working from a King novella. Thus the setting is the inevitable Maine seacoast village, where commercial artist David Drayton (journeyman handsome guy Thomas Jane) makes his nice living designing the jackets of . . . Stephen King novels, many of which are proudly displayed in his studio.

The setup is simple. One day after a violent storm has wreaked havoc, word comes of some kind of crisis at a nearby military base. A heavy, almost liquid mist drifts out of the mountains and across the cove, and soon ensnares the town. By this time, David and his precocious son Billy (Nathan Gamble) are in the grocery store, which is basically the setting for the film as the townspeople become trapped there for two hours by the snowy goop outside -- Darabont being a director who never found a story he could tell in under 120 minutes. (He should have looked at Don Siegel's infinitely better horror allegory, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which unspools in a super-quick 80 minutes!)

For a time, you don't think you're in a grocery store in Maine; however, you might think you're in the big hall of the Screen Actors Guild, where all the zany character specialists must go in hopes of getting work. Good Lord, what a tapestry of familiar faces -- there's flinty old Frances Sternhagen still playing a flinty New Englander and there's William Sadler doing his dumb-old-boy thing, and on and on. You can say: Well, it's nice to see these extremely talented people who've never quite gotten the big break. Or you can say: The familiar faces make the thing look phony. You know you're in a movie every second.

After adjusting to their new reality (it's raining carnivores!), the townspeople quickly decamp into two cliques, and the political battle between them interests Darabont far more than the monsters from wherever scuttling about in the vapors -- he gives that explanation a single sentence in a garbled soldier's account. Jane's David becomes the leader of what might be called the rationalists, or the cognitive elite, as the movie insists on breaking down society by class lines. These are college-educated or managerial types, outsiders mostly, interested in survival as the answer to intelligently posed questions. What if they come here? Then we must block here. What if they come there? Then we must block there. So they spend their time piling cat food bags against the windows.

The others are led by the great actress Marcia Gay Harden as the evil Mrs. Carmody, the scheming, ruthless religioso. First treated as a loon and dismissed by the elite leaders, she hits on populist chords and soon steals the group's loyalty. Crooning, bellowing, preaching hellfire and damnation like any liberal's deepest fear of the religious right, she becomes almost a dictator and turns the masses into her willing henchmen, even to the point of violence against other trapped survivors. She ultimately claims that the Mist is God's punishment and that every night, someone must be sacrificed to appease his anger.

This grotesquely imaged character aside, the true offense in "The Mist" is Darabont's picture of "the mob." These blue-collar red-staters are portrayed as easily gulled morons, incapable of listening to reason, swayed in a moment by the most insane of voices. Darabont even goes so far as to find actors with what might be called "proletarian" faces -- they seem all big, thuggish men or frumpy, beaten-down, terrified wives. It's quite appalling.

That said, on a certain level the movie really cooks. A couple of the fights -- the creatures have broken into the grocery store and the survivors battle them with sharpened broomsticks, jury-rigged flame-throwers and Toby Jones's Colt .38 -- are brilliantly directed. Of the various sorts of creatures, the big ones, barely glimpsed in the fog, slouching like rough beasts, are the most impressive; the pterodactyl thingies are okay, and I don't think the big dragonflies really work, though the idea of a bug the size of a falcon does send shivers down my spine even now.

I didn't care for a glib twist at the end, which seemed way out of character, given the resilient and heroic nature of the people involved. And the movie could happily lose 20 minutes, maybe even 40, and nobody would notice except everyone would leave happier.

The Mist (127 minutes at area theaters) is rated R for violence, terror, gore and profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company