Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 09 July 2008
Source Warner Bros. DVD
Peter Weir’s 1986 film The Mosquito Coast, from a novel by Paul Theroux, is a movie of a particularly peculiar breed: the kind that seems more suited to being talked about than watched. Go ahead and discuss it in the context of Weir’s other work, or screenwriter Paul Shrader’s, or star Harrison Ford’s. Compare it to the novel on which it’s based, or to Fitzcarraldo and Swiss Family Robinson and Heart of Darkness (or Apocalypse Now, if you like). It’s a movie that’s eager to engage the head, but its ideas end up in a tangle, and worse, the film too often misses the heart.
It tells the story of Allie Fox, the brilliant and very angry inventor played by Ford who packs up his beautiful family (including Helen Mirren as the wife who Allie disconcertingly calls, “Mother,” and River Phoenix as Allie’s eldest son Charlie) and takes them to the Central American rainforest to start anew. Allie manages to buy a small town with alarming ease, and his ideal briefly materializes before complications arise and paradise is inevitably poisoned.
Ford is given some opportunity to stretch here, trading in his familiar, smirking brand of stoicism for something considerably more chatty and cracked. His performance here is one of the film’s great selling points—looking authentically sun-ravaged, his voice cracking, Ford makes Allie’s stubborn determination frighteningly convincing. So it’s unfortunate that by playing Allie as written, Ford also contributes to the film’s faults. Allie absolutely never shuts up (one of the film’s best gags finds his constant raving drowned out by the noise of a chainsaw). He becomes unlikable and overbearing so quickly, and his folly is evident so early in the picture, that the collapse of his utopia, and his family’s ensuing misery, feels more rote than revelatory. In his review of the film from the time of its release, Roger Ebert writes that Allie “is painful to watch… not because he is mad, but because he is boring—one of those nuts who will talk all night long without even checking to see if you’re listening.” Unfortunately, that’s a fairly accurate assessment.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that the other members of the Fox family are obscured by their tightly wound patriarch, and this too is problematic. Mirren’s turn as Allie’s wife might not have registered at all in the hands of a less capable actress, but even she is unable to do much with the exceptionally passive Mother Fox. She has a lovely moment early on, when she regards the sink full of unwashed dishes that she’s leaving behind, a smile spreading across her face. But as the story goes on, it becomes harder to imagine that the promise of adventure, and even the love of her husband, could be anywhere near enough to make her endure all that she does. Similarly, though Phoenix’s Charlie narrates portions of the film, Shrader’s script gives him little more to do than act as an increasingly unhappy bystander to his own story.
If the family drama mostly crumbles for the lack of real development for any of the characters but Allie, the critique of colonialism here is also problematic. Allie’s pursuit of his own personal American dream – complete with references to a New World there for the taking, and even a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for the Fox family – is obviously wrongheaded, but that doesn’t mean that the majority of the denizens of Allie’s new town are given much of a say in the matter. They remain mostly relegated to crowd scenes and vaguely sketched characterizations. It’s disheartening to glimpse Butterfly McQueen in her last big screen role, nearly half a century removed from Gone with the Wind but still stuck playing a character both secondary and subordinate.
The social criticism of the piece is foggily defined. One could argue that Allie’s destructive desire to take flight from society is a damning criticism in and of itself, but we don’t see much during the film’s brief time in the States to justify his endless ranting. Indeed, Allie comes across as so insane by the film’s close that even his arguably legitimate criticisms of consumer society (sprinkled in with a lot of xenophobic nonsense about Japanese imports and miscellaneous other digressions) are rendered moot.
One wants to be forgiving of The Mosquito Coast because it is nearly as ambitious as its lead character. Packed as it is with loaded concepts and extreme situations, the film could launch a thousand seminar papers. It teems with the brilliant and the absurd, sometimes simultaneously; watch as Allie, in increasing desperation, insists to his family that the United States has been annihilated in their absence. Or dig the sharp, surreal image of a rainforest church congregation silently and attentively watching a slick missionary preach from the television on their altar. In moments like this, it’s easy to believe that The Mosquito Coast has important things to say. But in the end, this flawed work starts more conversations than it can sustain.