Tuesday, May 20, 2008

There's something in The Mist

Grocery stores are fascinating places. They are among the few social gathering points that attract people of all classes, races, ethnicities, cultural orders, and religious views. With the exception of the wealthiest of wealthy and the poorest of poor, almost everyone frequents the grocery store; for practical purposes, and also in a more elemental sense, for survival. We need sustenance simply to keep living, and to support or social and cultural practices, different as they are.

Throughout movie history, some of the most tense films have transpired in a single, mostly isolated location. Horror films, in particular, have benefited from a focused setting, where an atmosphere of suspense and terror can be amplified from the feeling of isolation. Stephen King used this basic device as a way to frame a seemingly by-numbers monster thriller against the backdrop of a supermarket. Using a traditional setup and narrative structure, King explored the social relations of a staple institution in many of our lives. On an average day in a New England town, the story is populated with townspeople and out-of-towners alike, all who whom agree on the policies that enable a supermarket --as a social institution-- to function. But when a man comes frantically running through the parking lot --blood dripping from his nose and down his face, eyes widened in shock-- bursting through the entrance doors of the store, that order is ruptured. And in a few short moments, those who expected merely to pass through the store and move along with their lives find themselves enshrouded in mist, enveloped by a perpetual void in the form of a foggy realm moving over the town.

Director Frank Darabont recognizes the importance of character, isolation, and perhaps most importantly, our sociocultural policies, in adapting King's work on film. One of the more difficult tasks that Darabont accomplishes is the juxtaposition of the human drama arising from an expected crisis, and the supernatural forces which besiege them. This is not easy to execute on film, but Darabont achieves a fluid aesthetic of elongated shots and smooth closeups, building an atmosphere out of the relationship between the tangible, palpable fears of isolation, and the creatures who invade the world outside with no regard for those who have ordered it. Darabont draws this distinction sharply, giving equal weight to both narrative threads and allowing them to feed off one another for maximum effect, separated only by a thin sheet of glass. From the inside, the racial, social, and cultural tensions embedded deep within the beliefs and values that inform each of our lives are exploited by the looming vision of mist pressing up against the glass exterior of the market, and slowly penetrating that barrier.

At the heart of the human drama is more than just a fight for survival, which, although compelling as a center of clashing individual ideologies, is heightened even moreso by deeply embedded cultural conflicts that largely determine how individuals organize and construct explanations, notions of justice, and divisions of power. While race, class, and occupation loosely form the ground on which individuals base their perspectives on each other and the external world, the film observes that deeper than all of these fabrics of identity is a more constitutive collective order of the organized belief in a supernatural order: religion.

Although the film simplifies this "culture war" of religious inclinations with its broad narrative strokes, Darabont's magnification of this conflict --in the form of one character who preaches to the townspeople about the wrath of god-- allows him to explore the extent to which theism and religiosity motivates individuals to achieve a particular end. Therefore, King's and Darabont's observations are cutting and cynical. As one of the characters observes in a crucial (though perhaps too literal) exchange midway through the film, "As a species, we're fundamentally insane. Put two of us in a room, we pick sides, and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another." The man who says this is one of the store's workers, who bands together with a small group of forward-thinking protagonists who are more concerned with surviving the chaos around them, rather than explaining it and co-opting those dangerous conditions to exploit the collective's fear of death and the unknown.

Yet, although the film appears to embody the struggle between religiosity and pragmatism, its real focal point is the discussion of whether or not people are fundamentally good. There are those who believe that people are born good, which is usually attributable to some kind of grand design. From this perspective, it's all of the "artificial" and "unnatural" things that corrupt individuals. On the other side, there are those who believe that people are not much more than animals, refined by thousands of years of cultural meaning-making and socialization. Although people divide themselves over those very learned conventions and policies of language and rhetoric, these are also organizing principles that enable civilization as we know it. Division is built into the unifying principles of language and culture. But, when stripped of the complex world if discourse and forms that provides our lives with meaning, all slips into chaos, and people engage in a primal struggle not only for survival, but for power. And the key means by which to achieve that power is fear.

This struggle culminates in a deeply cynical ending that will undoubtedly divide viewers. Wherever you stand in interpreting the film's final moments will likely say much about which kind of person you are, with regards to the film's central questions concerning the fundamental nature of humankind. And while this struggle of ideology and theistic enterprise makes for fascinating human drama, the film embodies that experience so effectively because it is more oriented toward probing human behavior and communication rather than titulating the viewer with shocks and gore.

There's no doubt that The Mist is an intense experience in cinematic horror. But the horror arises out of human interaction, and subtle observations on individuals dividing themselves and bounding together when facing extraordinary circumstances. Life is lost to the creatures in the mist and to hellbent people, but how that life is lost is where the film really takes effect. Darabont's deft vision of humans in crisis is staggering, particularly at moments where life is draining away. Almost every "death scene" in the film is shocking in its quietness, and almost unbearable to see in the level of detail Darabont depicts it. Victims' skin quivers, their eyes well up, and after great struggle, each resign themselves to the inevitable reality of death swallowing them whole. Darabont's images are starkly real, even apocalyptic, often in the most subtle manners. Any fan of the horror genre has seen tentacles swallowing human prey, but Darabont can make it brutally real, focusing more on the in-the-moment details that a body in fear experiences. You feel it when a tentacle pierces flesh. And yet, no single image in The Mist is more frightening than the sharp blade grasped on one end by human hands plunging into the stomach of a fellow man. Encircled by a crowd function as a larger body of righteousness, the defenseless man is the unfortunate target of the twisted logic determined solely by his social position (an army officer). He is reduced to nothing more than the means by which members of a dominant majority can carry out their insatiable desire to provide meaning and structure to things that, quite simply, defy explanation.

1 comment:

Evan Derrick said...

I agree - the film's central question is whether or not human beings are inherently good or evil. I approached it from a religious perspective that embodies both of the two positions you mentioned - that there is a grand design but that people gravitate towards evil. The mob scene, where they stab the officer, eerily echoes experiences from my own childhood. I did things in packs that I would never have done on my own (vandalism, language, etc.).

Darabont seems to be establishing that anyone who plays god pays for it. The military scientists who unleash the mist in the first place, Mrs. Carmody, and eventually Thomas Jane's character. Each of them takes eternal matters into their own hands, and each of them reaps the consequences. Some have called the ending nihilistic, but I see it as wrathful. The punishment for taking matters of life and death into your hands, regardless of your intentions, is ironic and swift. Isn't the road to hell paved with good intentions?