The Mist [Black-and-White] (2007)

My disinterest in Stephen King is no secret. I also think the reputation of The Shawkshank Redemption is miraculously overstating its actual quality. These two things did not, particularly, indicate to me an interest in the movie. I heard more better things as time went on, so, in my omnipresent pursuit of an open mind and willingness to reconsider, I picked this one up a while ago.

David Drayton (Thomas Jane) is a painter of movie posters for large studio films, and a thunderstorm sends a tree through his studio, as well as taking out the power. He and son Billy (Nathan Gamble) head into town with Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), their neighbour whose tree fell across their boathouse. At the store, as they greet assistant manager Ollie Weeks (Toby Jones) and cashier Sally (Alexa Davalos), discussing the local tabloid-consuming Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), before Dan Miller (Jeffrey DeMunn) comes running in with bloody nose insisting something in an enroaching mist took a man who was with him. The doors are locked, and David, Ollie, and two men named Jim Grondin (William Sadler) and Myron LaFleur (David Jensen) take bag boy Norm (Chris Owen) into the back to try to get a generator started. When tragedy strikes, they’re left trying to convince the store that what’s in the mist is a series of violent, aggressive creatures. Amanda Dunfrey (Laurie Holden) strikes up a compassionate role with David and his son, while conflicts break out between the others and three soldiers, Jessup (Sam Witwer), Morales (Juan Gabriel Pareja), and Donaldson (Walter Fauntlreoy) speak quietly in the store.

Well, so…

I’m vaguely astonished at the response and reputation–I’m a horror fan, so that’s not the issue in itself. I enjoyed The Shawkshank Redemption (for all that I think it’s nothing like the best movie ever released as IMDb is prone to insisting in aggregate), as well as The Green Mile. I’ve never read The Mist, even when I still regularly read Stephen King. But that does lead me into what started to send things wrong–Stephen King dialogue. I was reminded quickly of Silver Bullet, which I was able to enjoy despite this, but it made things fall apart that much quicker with the nature of this movie. What I mean is unnatural dialogue (I think I’ve occasionally found people insist King is great at characterization, a claim that will baffle me to the end of my days). People say overly philosophical things periodically, talking about what fear will do to people, whipping out endless “clever” statements, and many of them end up being anachronistic (one of the hallmarks of King dialogue for me–slang and phrasing that feels wildly out of place). But if Silver Bullet could survive for me, what’s wrong here?

Gods, where to begin?

Well, it’s not the acting. Braugher alone should indicate that, but Jane actually quite impressed me. I was already familiar (at least to some extent) with Toby Jones, Jeffrey DeMunn, Marcia Gay Harden (who I could swear has done this kind of role before, but I might be imagining it she was so good at going for it), Frances Sternhagen (who plays Irene Reppler, a teacher) and William Sadler at the least. When the aforementioned dialogue rears up, a lot of them do their damnedest to make their performance work around the stupid words coming out of their mouths (“Wasn’t that the word he used… ‘sorry’?”, “Wow, look at those stingers”,  “I know you’re a bigshot artist with connections in New York and Hollywood and all, but that don’t make you better than anyone else, in my book…”), and people who are insanely skilled like Braugher pull it off (though he doesn’t get the worst humdingers). But then the construction is bad, too: everyone becomes afraid of the mist at the front of the shop, then they go to the loading dock and everyone is telling David he’s being ridiculous, and leaping around puffing out their chests, despite hypotheses like the mist being a toxic cloud. It’s jarring, because no one was established as being insistent on nothing being scary (else why wouldn’t they just leave out the front? Why are they agreeing to be stuck in the store?!). And this kind of thing continues–Carmody is an 80s trope (the crazy religious fanatic lady), but she is a jumble of things that don’t even fit together into some unique space. It’s just unbelievable.

She talks about sin, she talks about people being against God, but then she swears, threatens people, and says things like–another instance of, “Would this really be the character who would say that?”–“If I need a friend like you, I’ll squat down and shit one out”. As indicated above in lines like “I know you’re a bigshot artist…” the script suffers heavily from “telling not showing”, and this gets worse when it tries to have any depth. Ollie and David announce that people will cultishly fall in line behind Carmody because fear, because the unknown, because horrifying circumstances. I gotta tell you: I’m sympathetic to the notion, actually, but this movie fails miserably at selling me on it. It also fails miserably at selling me on why the hell these people who know she’s that kind of risk don’t try to lock her up, use her crazed beliefs against her, decide in cold-blooded pragmatism to kill her for the good of the store’s “society”, or something. We see Norton as this lawyer who becomes convinced David and Ollie and the rest are trying to prank him, and it is one in an endless series of moments where we’re trying to feel something about characters who are barely established (again: Braugher is Braugher, so he’s largely able to pull it off, but the cracks show, because he’s still stuck with this script and this direction).

Frank Darabont just completely bombed here. His script is horrendous: all the dialogue problems, all of the character problems, all of the logic and nonsense that seem to be intended to reach points in the story and flounder their way into them. But his direction just makes it even worse. In commentary he talks about this being a thriller and wanting to keep the pacing up and my jaw dropped. This movie is slow. There are endless reaction shots that go on too long, a lighter that won’t light that takes a good 20 seconds of screentime. He talks about what people will do when subjected to fear, and how they’ll turn on each other–he talks about this black-and-white version as preferred, and as reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead. Whew. Those are some big shoes to fill in trying to show how external threats can turn people on each other, create drama that has nothing to do with that direct threat–and this one does not get it. There’s no belief or character consistency (yes, Carmody is consistently ridiculous–but it’s as I say, not entirely coherent, held together, as many of these are, by performance, in Harden’s place). But he said he wanted to keep it under two hours as a thriller–jesus, 117 minutes (as he says, not counting credits) is not “thriller speed” if you believe that speed is a necessity for a thriller. It’s just not paced right at all–which made it astonishing as he pointed to scenes that were cut and why they were removed as character diversions. We see a character die, but he stripped out the character’s personality-establishing scenes, to it just happens.

Those are all bad enough, but the CGI is also horrendous. Poorly lit and saturated if not fully inside the mist, and generally disappointing. There’s no music, which is sometimes a great idea and helps with suspense, but here it just makes all the scenes that are cut way too long already drag even more. When Dead Can Dance’s “The Host of the Seraphim” finally showed up, my desperate battle to fight down the urge to turn off this stupid movie and walk away and instead experience the whole, knowing things can change, perspectives can adjust–fell apart. It was so unearned: there was no justification, because we didn’t establish these characters, and flew in defiance of them the whole time, with nonsensical conflicts–that early one in the loading dock was just monstrously stupid as well as clichéd–that ruin any chance of empathising with these one-note pretenses of character. And then there’s the camera work–often distractingly hand-held, with snap zooms (!) and other amateurish manoeuvres that kept taking me out of the moment and reminding me the camera was there, but injecting the camera right into the frame, making it not “a character” or any of the other fancy ideas that can make active, interesting camerawork relevant–but pure distraction and baffling decisions.

Ugh. Really, I haven’t been this frustrated and disappointed by a movie in a while. I wasn’t in a bad mood, I wasn’t falling asleep…but it just sank itself and sank itself. It’s got competence in a lot of places, honestly, but it is in dire need of a re-write and a tighter edit before it even succeeds as the “fun monster movie” idea. Which, I guess, means I mention the last thing: Darabont also compares this to 1960s monster movies, but you can’t merge horrific violence with doofy dialogue. It works, or is at least palatable, in those movies because death is people facing the camera and throwing up their arms and screaming or being dragged off frame–so on and so forth. It’s heightened reality, but this tries to throw ‘more real’ elements in the mix with those, but it doesn’t feel like it was put together to make that work, just “This is my script, and also these are the effects I want.”

Right. I don’t feel tons like talking more about this as it’s just quietly infuriating as I half-listen to the making of documentary and people keep saying it does things that it does the opposite of, like being “human”. It doesn’t. It’s bad direction of a bad script–I’d say bad editing, but I’m willing to give Hunter M. Via the benefit of the doubt, as the editing problems aren’t that they’re jarring or “wrong”, they’re just badly chosen and assembled scenes, and I suspect that was in Darabont’s hands.

I didn’t even talk about the terrible fades to black. Hoof. Just no.

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