Friday, January 7, 2011

The Mosquito Coast

The Mosquito Coast (1986) is one of Harrison Ford’s most fascinating performances and it came at a time when he was able to use his box office clout from the lucrative Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises to push through the Hollywood system more challenging films. And this certainly applies to this film which focuses on a brilliant inventor who decides that western society has become too corrupt and materialistic and moves his family to the jungles of Central America where he attempts to manipulate a small village into his idea of a civilized society. Not exactly the most accessible project but Ford and director Peter Weir, hot off their successful collaboration on Witness (1985), teamed up again on The Mosquito Coast, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Paul Theroux.


The film is about a man obsessed with imposing his will on others to the degree that he exhibits self-destructive tendencies. What better person to realize this than Paul Schrader who was brought on to write the screenplay. He knows a thing or two about these types of protagonists as evident with Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), both of which he wrote. The Mosquito Coast also allowed Weir to continue his fascination with strangers in a strange land, which he had explored previously in The Year of Living Dangerously (1983) and Witness. So, the trifecta of Ford, Schrader and Weir was an inspired one but the end result was too extreme for mainstream audiences and the film was a box office flop and received mixed reviews.

The film is narrated by Charlie Fox (River Phoenix) and done after the events depicted in the film. He is a young, teenage boy who clearly idolized his father: “I grew up with the belief that the world belonged to him and that everything he said was true.” Allie Fox (Harrison Ford) is a brash and brilliant inventor. Right from the first shot, he expresses his disappointment with what America has become as he tells Charlie, “Look around you. How did America get this way? … This place is a toilet.” Weir cuts to a shot of Allie and his son driving down a street dominated by fast food restaurants, their large signs almost completely obscuring several trees and a grassy hill as the visuals only serve to prove Allie’s point and will be eerily relevant towards the end of the film.

Allie continues his rant as if he were channeling Travis Bickle’s disgust for society from Taxi Driver: “The whole damn country is turning into a dope-taking, door-locking, ulcerated danger zone of rabid scavengers, criminal millionaires and moral snakes.” Amazingly, these words come out of a film released during the height of the supposedly “Greed is good,” Ronald Reagan-era 1980s in America when the country’s economy was booming. However, these sentiments also apply to our current situation with the war in Iraq, the Enron scandal, 9/11, and the collapse of the global economy. Allie is disgusted by what America has become and is “sick of dealing with people who want things I’ve already rejected.” Ford delivers this angry monologue with just the right amount of self-righteous indignation.

The first inkling we get that Allie is losing touch with reality is the cooling system he was supposed to make for a nearby farmer. Not only is he late with the device but it isn’t what the man wanted. Ford is brilliant here as he shows how Allie takes a rejection and deflects it, and ignores his mistake as a shortcoming of the farmer. This incident only confirms his beliefs. The farmer’s parting shot is probably the best observation about Allie: “A know-it-all who’s sometimes right.” After observing some poor migrant workers, Allie begins to think about how valuable ice and his cooling system would be in the jungle where it is always oppressively hot. He laments that these workers left the jungle to work basically as slaves for the farmer and muses about how much courage it would take to leave civilization and go live in the jungle.

So, Allie uproots his family – wife (Helen Mirren), two sons and two daughters – and heads for the jungles of Belize. En route, he and his family cross paths with the Reverend Gurney Spellgood (Andre Gregory) and his family. Spellgood is a man who will play a prominent role in their lives. Allie has little time for Spellgood and religion, referring to The Bible as “God’s owner’s handbook.” He is even able to quote Scripture back to Spellgood. Like Allie, Spellgood is zealous in his beliefs, they just happen to be based in religion and not science.

As soon Allie and his family arrive, Weir immerses us in this strange new world with an audio-visual assault on our senses with local music and the hustle and bustle of the port city. Allie buys a small town and the next day, he and his family take a boat there. Weir shows a long shot of their journey along a curvy river that goes deep into the jungle and one can’t help but think of Willard’s river journey in Apocalypse Now (1979) only Allie is Colonel Kurtz ready to go native and impose his will on the locals. The river journey features some beautiful cinematography courtesy of Weir’s regular cinematographer John Seale. The vibrant greens of the lush jungle jump out at you and are in sharp contrast to the brown dirt that populates the jungle floor. As he did with Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Year of Living Dangerously, Weir has a real knack for immersing us in the film’s setting, so much so that it almost becomes like another character. The Mosquito Coast is no different as we see how harsh the environment is, from the intense sun to the monsoon-like rain. This inhospitality is juxtaposed with the beauty of the trees and the serene river that winds through the jungle.

Allie puts his family and the natives to work, clearing the land and gathering up resources so that they can build his utopia. At times, he seems to do through sheer force of will. Everything seems to be going smoothly until Spellgood shows up and tries to win back the hearts and minds of the townsfolk only to have Allie spurn him yet again, much to the pastor’s chagrin. The confrontation is only a prelude to future conflict between these two headstrong men.

This is one of Harrison Ford’s best performances as he shows us the method to Allie’s madness. He is a charismatic despot of sorts. In a way, many of his diatribes about the wasteful nature of America are right on point. It’s his solution to its ills that don’t always make sense. Ford is fully committed to the role without a shred of vanity. He’s not afraid to play an unlikable character and approaches Allie Fox as someone who thinks that they aren’t crazy even though it is pretty obvious that he has a very skewed perspective on things. Ford nails the zeal of Allie’s beliefs but is still able to make him somewhat relatable thanks to his natural charisma. It’s a role that calls for the kind of physicality that Ford excels at as we see Allie building the town up with his own hands. He is so good at the physical aspects of acting – hence all the action roles he’s played in his career – and Allie is no different. More importantly, Ford shows how Allie’s megalomaniacal tendencies gradually consume him. It is small things, at first, like the way he belittles one of his sons for complaining about roughing it in the jungle.

Weir does a good job ratcheting up the tension during a sequence where three armed mercenaries arrive and Allie has to come up with a way to get them to leave. It is where Allie’s madness actually works to his advantage but at a horrible price, as he is willing to destroy everything he worked so hard to build up in order to get rid of them. Eventually, Allie’s epic vision becomes incredibly myopic as he alienates his own family. The actors that play the family members are all excellent, from Helen Mirren as the nurturing mother, to River Phoenix as the loyal son. Initially, they all believe in what their father is doing unconditionally but over time they gradually come to question his methods. They are decent people pushed to their breaking point by Allie.

Producer Jerome Hellman read Paul Theroux’s novel in1982 and bought the film rights with his own money shortly after it was published. He felt that a great film was possible if the right people were involved but also had his reservations and admitted that he “didn’t fully appreciate how out of the ordinary the Establishment would consider this.” He soon hired screenwriter Paul Schrader to adapt the book and a first draft was developed in 1983. That same year, Hellman approached Peter Weir to direct based on films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Year of Living Dangerously. Hellman said, “the thematic harmony between Peter’s previous work and The Mosquito Coast was striking, but I was also impressed with the humanism in his work.”

After reading the first draft of the script, Weir met with Hellman and Schrader in Sydney, Australia where they spent a week discussing every aspect of it. Once he felt that it could be made into a film, Weir agreed to direct. Hellman then brought him to the United States and showed him the book’s New England locations. The producer also arranged a meeting between Weir and Theroux but the director was apprehensive because he had a bad experience with a novelist on one of his earlier films. Fortunately, the two men got along and Theroux encouraged Weir to make the film his own. Hellman and Weir then spent two years trying to get a studio interested in making The Mosquito Coast but with little success. Hellman remembered that they were turned down all over Hollywood, “most places three or four times.”

In early 1984, they realized that due to the seasonal demands of the plot, they would have to delay principal photography for another year. However, Weir was chomping at the bit to direct a film and he received an offer to direct Witness. During the making of that film, he developed a close working relationship with its star, Harrison Ford. During this time, Jack Nicholson became interested in taking on the role of Allie Fox but when the deal fell through, Hellman and Weir agreed that Ford would be perfect to play the character. Ford was drawn to the role because it was so different from anything he had done before: “I was aware that there was opportunity here for more complicated characterization and because the character is so verbal and effusive, it goes against the kind of characters for which I’m best known.” Ford also wanted “the edgy feeling of the book still to be preserved. We didn’t want to abandon the balls of it because it’s not necessary for him [Allie] to be entirely likable as long as the audience can understand what he’s about.” Furthermore, Ford “worked hard not to make him too sympathetic, to keep an edge, to keep him bristling.”

After Witness was released and became a big hit (garnering several Academy Award nominations), almost every studio wanted to make The Mosquito Coast but Hellman, burnt out from shopping the film around and getting repeatedly rejected, wanted to find independent financing. He met with producer Saul Zaentz to ask for advice and to read the script. He did and was so taken with it that he offered to have his company finance, present and supervise the distribution of the film.

Seeing as how most of the film is set in the jungle, it was crucial that Hellman and Weir find the right location. They considered Costa Rica, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, and Hawaii before picking Belize, which had everything they needed: mountains, ocean, jungle and rivers – all within an hour radius of Belize City. It was also an English language country whose political situation was stable. While filming in the jungle, the cast and crew endured cuts and bruises, mosquito bites and heavy sunburn with large snakes common on the set. Ford found the shoot long and humid. It was more exhausting for him mentally than physically because of “the complexity of the role and the endless process of sorting out and reappraising where we were at.”

Weir drew inspiration for the visual look of The Mosquito Coast from a bulletin board he had on location that was adorned with postcards, pages from magazines, a pressed flower, a match box, and so on. “It’s a question of texture, a kind of mosaic of inspirations,” he said. Weir felt that it was important to shoot the construction of the town Allie owns to be filmed in continuity and so three versions of it were created. Each was a little more advanced than the one before. As the crew moved from one set to another, the construction crew would do additional work on the previous set. This allowed Weir to film in days what would’ve taken many months to do.

Not surprisingly, The Mosquito Coast did not fare well with critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “Allie Fox's madness is more of a drone, an unending complaint against the way things are. It is painful to watch him 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.” However, the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley enjoyed Ford’s performance: “Sooner or later a man of invention will pollute paradise, a grand contradiction that gives Mosquito its bite and Ford inspiration for his most complex portrayal to date. As a persona of epic polarities, he animates this muddled, metaphysical journey into the jungle.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “In spite of its authentic scenery (it was filmed in Belize), this Mosquito Coast is utterly flat. Even its exotic melodrama fails to excite the imagination. The problem is not in the performances but in the way they have been presented, most of the time in a cool, dispassionate, third-person narrative style, stripped of Charlie's troubled thoughts and feelings that give the book its emotional force.” The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson criticized Weir’s approach to the material in her review: “He's orchestrated The Mosquito Coast's action to match Fox's progressive mental state, from rage to explosion to squalls and finally to hurricane velocity; however, the film leaves us not with an apotheosis, but exhaustion.” To his credit, Harrison Ford has no regrets about making the film: “I adored that movie. If people didn’t want to see me be mean to kids, I understand that. But I was thrilled to have made that movie.”

In some respects, one could see The Mosquito Coast as a commentary on the extreme nature of the cult of personality as both Allie and Spellgood are prime examples of someone who believes that their vision of society is the right one. At first, Allie’s vision is quite seductive and seems to work but as time goes on and outside forces threaten it, the cracks begin to show. Weir takes an unflinching look at the extremes of science and religion and this apparently turned off audiences and critics alike. It is time for this film to be rediscovered and recognized as one of his more thought-provoking efforts made within the system by a movie star with enough clout to make it happen.


SOURCES

Diehl, Digby. “The Iceman Cometh.” American Film. December 1986.

Honeycutt, Kirk. “Harrison Ford on Harrison Ford.” Daily News. 1986.

McGilligan, Pat. “Under Weir and Theroux.” Film Comment. November-December 1986.

The Mosquito Coast Production Notes. 1986.


Thompson, Anne. “Gamblers on the Coast.” The Globe and Mail. November 7, 1986.


Turan, Kenneth. “Still the Same After All These Years.” GQ. November 1986.

20 comments:

  1. J.D.

    Another riveting retrospective. I really enjoyed reading this and getting immersed in your description of the film and the background behind it.

    I remember seeing The Mosquito Coast back in the 1980s and probably not really understanding it all, but being intrigued nonetheless. I should watch it again now, decades later, with a fresh eye; and your review makes me want to do just that.

    It's funny how all the issues that seem relevant to life in 1987 are, as you say, equally relevant in 2011.

    Great post!

    best,
    JKM

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  2. J.D., I'm happy to see this film get more respect, since it's one of the most underrated films of the Eighties. The film it reminds me of the most is Huston's Moby Dick, mainly because in both cases reviewers treated the lead actors (Gregory Peck in the earlier film)unfairly for daring to play against type. In the case of Coast Ford was punished for not being Nicholson, but the film is better for not having the more predictable actor in it. This film, Nichols' Working Girl and Polanski's Frantic show us what Ford was capable of and might have done more of had his image not hardened permanently in the early Nineties. Too bad about that.

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  3. Great look at this film, J.D. It's not my favorite Peter Weir film (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Year of Living Dangerously, Gallipoli, and Witness are ahead of it), but it is interesting. Plus, it's great to see Ford working with the director again, and against type. I agree with Samuel Wilson's comment about his work in WORKING GIRL and FRANTIC. It's been awhile and this one is worth re-visiting. Thanks, J.D.

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  4. John Kenneth Muir:

    Thanks for the compliments, John!

    MOSQUITO COAST is a tough film to get into and doesn't have a very sympathetic protagonist at its center but Ford makes it work somehow... I think by getting under Allie's skin and showing what motivates the man.

    I hope you decide to revisit it.


    Samuel Wilson:

    Glad to see that you're a fan of this film as well. It is a very underrated film and features a gutsy performance by Ford and a sensitive one by River Phoenix who, so young, but already showing tons of talent.

    I agree with you in that the casting of Nicholson would have been too on point and Ford brought something special to the role. He knew that he was doing something out of his comfort zone and really stepped up his game on this film.

    And thank you for mentioning Ford's other stellar roles in the '80s with WORKING GIRL (a film I hope to do a piece on) and FRANTIC. These films and MOSQUITO COAST showed an impressive range for Ford who was regarded as a movie star or action star who couldn't do drama or romantic comedy but he pulled it off. And I also couldn't agree more about his decline in the '90s. It was like the commercial failure of these risky roles made Ford go the safe route instead of continuing to challenge himself. To think, he was offered Michael Douglas role in TRAFFIC! Aigh.


    le0pard13:

    I agree with you that this is not my fave Weir film... probably YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY or PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK but it is a fascinting entry in his filmography. Not an easy film to like but a lot to admire for sure.

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words, my friend.

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  5. J.D. I have to concur with you that I should perhaps go backk to this film. It's been a loooong time.

    I loved Harrison Ford and seeing it when I was younger it left me a little cold, but I definitely would appreciate aspects of this film more now I'm almost sure of it.

    Great cast. Great photogrpahy. Great location. Great director, but still somehow imperfect.

    I would not mind escaping the concrete jungle of the suburban or urban US at times so I can certainly understand the mentality of the film's characters. I think your point about the "extreme nature of the cult of personality" is right on. That's probably one of the most fascinating aspects of the film.

    Older now, I really love alot of Peter Weir's films. The ones you mentioned and others mentioned here as well as Fearless. He's done some amazing work.

    The Mosquito Coast is an interesting film and like one of your earlier Ford focuses [not to be confused with the car], I need to revisit this and Frantic.

    They are on my radar. Once again, a thoroughly enjoyable write-up on one of those films from formative years in film. I enjoyed it very much. all the best.

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  6. Terrific review, as always. I saw this when it was released on video in the late 1980s. It was one of the first 2 movies I rented, and back then you'd go out and rent a 97-pound VCR and 2 movies and that was your weekend. It's unfortunately become inextricably linked in my mind to the actual rental process, without much memory of the film itself. But the one thing I remember about it was that the locations were excellent, accurate without being overplayed. It surprised me quite a bit to see Canby even complain about the locale in his review. This is one that I've decided absolutely requires a new viewing, thanks to your write up here.

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  7. I just put this on my list of FILMS I SHOULD HAVE SEEN BY NOW. I still haven't seen it so I haven't read the review yet but I'm trying to find a copy at my local video store (it isn't on Netflix streaming). Once I see it I shall return for a read and a comment (I had just watched Witness which inspired me to watch MC).

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  8. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Like you I didn't appreciate this film when I was younger but it has aged well with me. I'd be curious to know what you think about this film now, after all these years.

    FEARLESS is a great film and Jeff Bridges is astounding in it. Weir also manages to get a really terrific performance out of Rosie Perez, an actress I'm normally not crazy about.

    As always, thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.


    Stacia:

    The locations used in this film are something else. It is also how John Seale photographs it that really brings the various locales to life - so vividly.

    Thanks for the comments.


    Will:

    Peter Weir's an interesting filmmaker who actually made even more intriguing films once he came to Hollywood instead of selling out. GREEN CARD is really the only Hollywood film of his I don't much care for. I hope you get a chance to see this one soon. I'd like to read your thoughts on it.

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  9. I used to see this movie a lot when I was a kid, even then (I must've been about 10 or 11) I loved the movie. It was one of those movies that moved me, it left me shaken like no other movie did. I guess I wasnt used to so much tension and drama, but I knew I loved it.

    Watching The Mosquito Coast was similar for me to when I watched Lord of the Flies, it was shocking and dramatic and NOT a happy film, and I liked that! It was one of the first films that made me feel and think as opposed to just being amazed at effects and action.

    I need to re-watch it now, it will probably take a whole other level of meaning and complexity for me! I've been meaning to give this one a re-watch and the time has come!

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  10. Haven't seen this since its cinema release, but now I need a second viewing. Long overdue, too. Thanks for another excellent review and also for some fascinating background.

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  11. The Film Connoisseur:

    Glad to see you are also a fan of this film. And I like your comparison to LORD OF THE FLIES. Survival of the fittest mixed in with madness. Watching Ford's character go off the deep end is fascinating and so well acted by him.


    Steve Langton:

    Thanks for stopping by and for your comments. I know what you mean. I hadn't seen it ages and had just recently picked up the DVD. Glad I did as I enjoyed it throughly and it made me want to dive into Peter Weir's back catalog.

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  12. Saw this with the family when it was brand-new on video and, even as a kid, I was really drawn into the film and enjoyed it despite the fact that I couldn't have understood a good portion of it. I should really revisit and, of course, just missed an opportunity to do so at Lincoln Center's Weir retrospective. On the plus side, I picked up THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY for $3 at Big Lots recently, another, along with MOSQUITO COAST and FEARLESS, that I have not watched in years.

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  13. Ned Merrill:

    Yeah, I didn't get all of this film when I saw it at a young age and it has definitely improved with time, as has many of Weir's films. I recently watched THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY again and it may be my fave film of his.

    FEARLESS is good also. Jeff Bridges is incredible in it. Thanks for stopping by.

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  14. J.D.:

    Yeah, I've had good luck with seeing these films at a young age and enjoying them even then. Jeez, I was probably about 8 or 9 when I saw THE MOSQUITO COAST when it was a new home video release and I recall having a great conversation about it with my folks when it was over. I was a big fan of River (from STAND BY ME and EXPLORERS) and Harrison at the time; don't think I knew who Helen Mirren was yet. I recall my mom showing me WITNESS around then, as well, and that, too, was a big hit in our home.

    Was fortunate enough to see FEARLESS theatrically (I was 15) and thought it was great then. Saw THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY at just about the same time and really dug it. Once again, I kick myself for skipping the Weir retrospective that just happened at the Walter Reade. :-)

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  15. Ned Merrill:

    Yeah, I am also a big fan of River Phoenix - he was incredible in MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO in addition to the films you also mentioned. I thought he was quite good in MOSQUITO COAST and obviously Ford thought so too as he ended up playing the younger version of Indy Jones.

    Never saw FEARLESS on the big screen and I wish I coulda seen that Weir retro at Walter Reade. Man, that would've been sweet.

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  16. I did not love this movie, but it does add something terrific to the resume of Harrison Ford. YBLM.

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  17. Jess:

    Yeah, not a film for everyone that's for sure but Ford was quite brilliant in it.

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  18. Within a film culture that makes the main protagonists either goodies or baddies a complex character like Allie, who is both good and bad...wonderful and dreadful... is hard for some people to grasp. I love this film and I think it is Fords finest hour. He is a dreamer who dreams too far, they become nightmares.

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  19. In a film culture where people are either 'goodies' or 'baddies' a highly complex character like Allie is bound to cause confusion. He is good and bad, wonderful and dreadful. It is Fords finest hour. A man whose dreams become the nightmare for those around him.

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  20. Anonymous:

    Good call. This is definitely one of Ford's strongest performances and a film that is vastly underrated. It's a shame that he doesn't tackle more roles like this.

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