What happens when a random assortment of humans are forced to collectively deal with incredible terror? Do they band together in unflinching patriotism ("United We Stand" style?) or do they cower in fear and turn on each other? This is the question that underlies Stephen King's The Mist.
Based on a Stephen King novella and adapted for the screen by writer/director Frank Darabont (who has some experience with successful King adaptations), The Mist is the story of a small town that becomes shrouded in a mysterious and malevolent fog. The brunt of the film takes place in a claustrophobic grocery store (classic horror film convention) where a band of survivors barricade themselves in and (hopefully) out of harm's way. Some doubters venture outside into the mist and are never heard from again. Some come back in pieces.
The grocery store assortment of townsfolk includes heroic alpha male David (Thomas Jane) and his young son (Nathan Gamble), supermarket manager Ollie (the fantastic Toby Jones), a newcomer to the town (Laurie Holden), and a smattering of other slice-of-life stereotypes (young, old, smart, stupid, brawny, nerdy, etc). The most interesting of these characters is a Bible-toting, fire-and-brimstone spewing shrew named Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden)—who provides one of the most hateful and vicious "Christian" characters in recent cinematic history. From the get-go, Mrs. Carmody explains the mist and its apparent monsters in terms of the apocalypse: "It's the end of days! It's death! It's judgment day! Star Wormwood blazes!"
As things go from bad to worse and the body count rises, Mrs. Carmody's vocal pronouncements of a "vengeful, Old Testament God" unleashing his wrath through these "plagues" begins to amass followers in a cultish, Lord of the Flies type way. Her Fred Phelps-esque hate speech polarizes the grocery store community, ultimately creating two factions with fundamentally different ideas as to how to respond to the increasingly desperate situation. David leads the "normal group" as they try to fend off the deadly forces outside the store as well—as Carmody's increasingly bloodthirsty mob within (whose battle cry is "expiation!"). Eventually the mayhem—accompanied throughout by thick tension and grisly violence—culminates in David's group escaping the hostile haven of the grocery store and trying their luck in the mist. What happens in the final ten minutes brings the film to another level of horror entirely.
The Mist is a decidedly dark (with a capital D) turn for Darabont, whose last three films (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Majestic) were strong affirmations of humanity's basic goodness. Not so with The Mist, however, which seems to have a much more pessimistic view of human nature. The film's "monsters outside the door" setup may seem like an M. Night Shyamalan type of "community-building" horror film (i.e., The Village) but The Mist is probably closer in spirit to Quentin Tarantino (i.e., dark, unrepentantly cynical, cartoonishly violent).
Still, The Mist does evoke more intelligent thriller fare (Shymalan, Hitchcock) by making the horror as much about the evil within as it is about the evils lurking outside. Indeed, the claustrophobia of all these scared humans holed up together lends itself nicely to a sort of morality tale. Within the first fifteen minutes—after the mist settles in and bloody townsfolk run into the store screaming "there's something in the mist!"—the inter-personal human conflicts begin to develop inside the store. A contingent of doubters refuses to believe there are "monsters" out there, the religious fanatic (Mrs. Carmody) starts speaking of the "fiends of Hell" being released. Soon it devolves into meta-discussions about human nature—how civilized or primitive we all really are.
The chaos brought about by the bloodthirsty array of creatures (from tiny poisonous bugs to monumental behemoths, impressively rendered in CGI) is one thing, but the chaos of humans when put against an existential wall—that's where the worst terror resides. Or so goes the thesis of this film. Human self-destruction has always been a convention of Stephen King stories (The Shining, for example), and The Mist is no different. Here the focus seems to be on the human foible of fear. As one character says in the film: "If you scare people bad enough, you'll get 'em to do anything. They'll turn to whatever promises a solution. Grasp at any straw." And this is where Mrs. Carmody and the religious fanatics come in. Apocalypse talk may sound ridiculous, but when it's the only explanation or solution offered, people will grab hold of it mindlessly, frantically, and (in the case of this film) violently.
For some Christians, the character of Mrs. Carmody will frustrate. She's such a stereotype of bigotry and hate: the oft-portrayed right-wing Christian more interested in doling out judgment than spreading grace and love. Fortunately, her villainous persona within the film is so obviously a distortion of real Christianity, one hopes that the average audience member will recognize her as an anomaly rather than archetype. Still, there is a definite feeling in the film that Christianity—or religion in general—is at best a false hope and at worst a justification for the negative instincts of human nature.
Certainly some might make the connection to the politics of the war on terror and the "culture of fear" in this post-9/11 world. Are we to respond to terror by barricading ourselves in and going on a perpetual defensive? Or should we take a more proactive, offensive stance? Is fear ever helpful for a society? Should we rush to conclusions and accept the official explanations, or is a more measured, skeptical perspective apropos? By the end of the film these questions become painfully complicated, with no clear answers given.
The only thing clear about The Mist is that it is intense. Audiences looking for a good scare will not be disappointed, and those who appreciate proto-philosophical human dynamics will also find something of interest here. It's not The Shawshank Redemption, but for what it is, The Mist is an admirable venture into the always foggy, sometimes treacherous landscape of the human soul.Discussion starters
- What does the film seem to be saying about fear? Does it help or hurt the main characters in the end?
- The final five survivors make a choice at the end of the film. Does what happens to them seem plausible, and what is the message that arises from how it all turns out?
- How is God portrayed in the film through the preaching of Mrs. Carmody? How is this different from how you understand God?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Mist is rated R for violence, terror and gore, and language. It's a stark, gory, and unsettling film, with a lot of scary scenes with monsters attacking and killing humans in a multitude of macabre ways. Though not quite as violent as some other recent horror films, The Mist is definitely violent enough to warrant caution. It is definitely not a movie for kids, and some adults might even find it tough to stomach. The moral issues raised are interesting and valuable to consider, however, so if you can handle horror films and disturbing endings, you might appreciate the film.
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