Frank Darabont ditches the warm and fuzzies for out-and-out cynicism about mankind's capacity for goodness and altruism with The Mist, the filmmaker's third feature-length adaptation of a Stephen King tale (here, a novella from 1985's Skeleton Crew). In a sleepy Maine town, a terrible nighttime storm wreaks havoc on the property of movie poster artist Dave (Thomas Jane) and his neighbors, including unfriendly, litigious Brent (Andre Braugher). The following morning, Dave, Brent, and Dave's son (Nathan Gamble) head to the local supermarket for supplies, where they and a group of similarly recuperating locales find themselves trapped by a mysterious cloud of mist that rolls off the nearby mountaintops (where a military base is rumored to be conducting experiments on UFOs) and surrounds the establishment. Ominous warning signs about this strange atmospheric phenomenon come quick, and soon give way to bedlam once it becomes clear that creatures of an inhuman sort—giant insectoids, towering arachnids, tentacles attached to who-knows-what—lurk within the haze.
As in King's story, threats are not only external to the store but internal as well, the latter coming in the guise of Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a religious zealot whose end-of-days sermonizing and calls for blood sacrifices to appease an angry God ("Expiation!") slowly gain footing among the frightened, desperate survivors. The righteous, fear-mongering Carmody is so one-dimensionally irrational and hateful that there's something too easy and uncomplicated about her villainy. Nonetheless, Darabont effectively conveys the notion that crises are easily utilized by some as a means to promote their own (oft-extreme, self-serving) agendas. Most of The Mist's tension comes from the anticipation of an attack (from supernatural or flesh-and-blood sources), and the writer-director shrewdly shrouds his most elaborate creatures—things better imagined than visibly defined—in the mist. And he elicits palpable anxiety from his claustrophobic hothouse setting, which has chemical weapon-attack echoes and which effectively pinpoints the fear, distrust and selfishness that can arise in chaos.
To its credit, the film remains faithful to King's characterization of both the townsfolk, who embody many of the author's trademark archetypes and yet share a credible rapport, as well as the dynamics of close-knit small-town communities, which are depicted as places where friendliness and compassion are easily discarded at the first sign of danger. Unlike his past, visually staid work, Darabont shoots with a hectic, in-the-moment urgency that compensates for a few overly speechy scenes where themes are too neatly articulated. And while Jane isn't the most charismatic leading man, his average-Joe quality has the effect of grounding this paranormal scenario in reality. The actor can't quite pull of the climax, in part because the film's apparent affection for Dave makes the completely new Twilight Zone-ish twist ring somewhat false. Relatively speaking, though, even if it's not entirely convincing, The Mist's damn-everyone-to-hell finale still proves a refreshing rebuke to the Capra-esque pap peddled by the director's prior The Majestic.