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Deadpan Despair: The Mist

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Deadpan Despair: <em>The Mist</em>

Were The Mist about mist and not monsters, human or otherwise, it might have remained nervy and unsettling, instead of simply icky and unpleasant, for the bulk of its running time. Frank Darabont’s elephantine adaptation of a rather slim Stephen King novella, while well-acted and intriguingly shot, loses its footing, like a lot of films that should be fun, when it starts preaching. Not content (or strong enough?) to be a film about cloudy (foggy?) judgments, The Mist carves up the world into discrete factions meant to signify varying moral registers, or approaches to human life. Darabont’s film continues his almost-hapless devotion to humanism despite all the supernatural phenomena and religious fervor in the film: the cast’s beat-your-brow-with-a-Bible zealots are far scarier than the demonic, slimy, tentacled insect-creatures crawling around them, out in the mist. And in the end, the bad CGI gives way, fully, in a gut-punch reveal to rival 28 Weeks Later as the biggest “Fuck you, stupid world” of the year.

Neither is subtle. Yet where Fresnadillo’s coda was ferocious (and post-human), Darabont’s would be nearly laughable were it not for the sober fact that his film has no sense of humor, just pathetic, deadpan despair.

But The Mist is not a complete waste thanks to its cast, which spends most of the film killing time, stranded (by the mist and its beasties) inside a rather theatrical supermarket. There are no marquee names in the picture, but if this film helps Thomas Jane (playing David Drayton, a local artist and steadfast father) become a bigger star, I’m for it; if Andre Braugher (playing Brent Norton, the haughty lawyer from New York) manages to continue to challenge his Hollywood typecasting, somehow, I’m for it; if somebody bright gets the idea to cast Marcia Gay Harden (playing the proselytizing, ingratiating Mrs. Carmody) in a tender role that softens her near-Formica features, I’m for it; if somebody besides Darabont gives Laurie Holden (playing an unfortunate victim of a bad name, and chance, Amanda Dumfries) a meaty, sexy role, I’m for it; if Toby Jones (playing the endearing, sharp-shooting Ollie) keeps getting solid roles with that devoutly non-Hollywood mug, I’m for it.

What I’m not for is how The Mist broadcasts its objectives instead of exploiting its premise. The film is at its best when Darabont keeps the mist-shrouded monsters offscreen and isolates his cast against (or within) the bordering background. Braugher’s departure from the supermarket works not only because of his subtle acting but also because the character’s choice dramatizes a keen understanding of skepticism, opening the film up to questions, unlike most of the rest of the picture. More simply: the mist, the mist’s creatures, Mrs. Carmody, and their relationships in the film make The Mist a picture explicitly about monsters—about how the world (man, nature, the unknown) is monstrous, always. Connecting the dots, as Darabont does here, only ever limits the scope of the work and leads to a nihilist outcome that surprises, given the humanist thrust of Darabont’s other pictures (which depict us as a majestic, redemptive species). What makes The Mist dispiriting is, oddly, its indecision: that is, how quickly it surrenders and rolls over, crying. Comparing it to its multiplex mate, the Coens’ recent No Country for Old Men, with qualitative judgments set aside, what strikes me most is that, for all the death and despair, and despite the law’s retirement, in No Country, the Coens’ film winds up affirming one’s choice of how to live in the world. The Mist, on the other hand, casts a pall over its characters (and its world) only to negate their choices, to end their lives.

House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy.