“As a species we’re fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and think up reasons to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?”
– Ollie Weeks
Art is alive. Not in the literal sense. Art isn’t going to come into your house, club you over the head with a two-by-four and steal your commemorative plate collection. It’s alive in the sense that a work’s meaning is constantly evolving in light of current events. When Stephen King wrote his novella The Mist in 1980, 9/11 hadn’t happened, but the book accurately captured the terror and insanity that follows in the wake of a sudden, unexplainable disaster. The connection was there, but it took Frank Darabont’s 2007 film adaptation to draw it with heavy black lines.
The Mist follows the basic survival horror model: a group of disparate people gets surrounded by monsters and tries not to die. Mostly, they fail this last part. That’s not too surprising, since instead of holing up in a relatively safe mall, isolated farmhouse, or state-of-the-art military bunker, the characters get caught in a supermarket. You know, those buildings whose entire front wall is made out of oh-so-breakable glass. It’s like hiding from a zombie outbreak in Leatherface’s kitchen. In this case, the problem isn’t walking dead, but an all-consuming mist stocked with Lovecraftian horrors like the world’s most terrifying fishing hole.
It’s a foregone conclusion that monsters will get into the store. The movie foreshadows this in the first scene when a storm drives a tree through the protagonist’s picture window. Only instead of a picture window at the supermarket, there’s that aforementioned wall o’ glass. Most of the monsters half-shown in the mist would be easily capable of breaking through the window. The survivors do what they can; taping the windows, stacking bags of dog food like sandbags, but it’s useless. This kind of futility is a reoccurring motif, showing up in the use of fire against the creatures, the attempted repair of the store’s generator and an errand to fetch a shotgun.
It would seem with these kinds of odds the humans would be wiped out in the first five minutes. The strange part is that the monsters seem entirely unaware of the yummy people inside the store. The few times any of the creatures do get in, it’s as a side effect of something else. In the first instance, a mass of tentacles reaches into the loading bay to drag bagboy Norm to his doom. The tentacles seem to be responding to the noise of the loading door and are chased off relatively easily with an axe and a closed door. In the second instance, light attracts large wasp creatures to alight on the front window, quickly followed by their predators: four-winged pterodactyl monsters. The big ones promptly smash through the windows and once in realize they’ve found the pork-filled center of some Maine cha siu bao. The breaking of the window was entirely accidental, just a side effect of a twilight bug hunt. At no other point does anything get into the store or even make an attempt. The monsters don’t necessarily want to kill all humans, but they’ll do it if it doesn’t interfere with their other plans. Willful, malicious evil is a human creation. The evil the creatures represent is an evil rooted in indifference. As Edmund Burke meant to say: all it takes for evil to triumph for good men to forget their shotguns in the car.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the primary danger isn’t the monsters outside, but the people inside. As Ollie points out, people like to divide the world into “us” and “them.” The scene in which he does that lays out the central thesis of the film: that civilization is an agreed-upon illusion that only exists as long as the lights are on, the machines are humming and the cops aren’t being eaten by arachnilobsters. It’s a bleak idea, but in late 2001 with xenophobia swallowing the country whole, it didn’t seem too far off. Slap some turbans on the pterodactyls and you’re pretty close to how Dick Cheney sees the world.
The survivors have different reactions to the mist and divide themselves into tribes based on that reaction. At first, it seems like there are three factions. The fourth is nearly invisible and serves as an ironic game of crotch soccer to the main character.
The first group could be referred to as the “heroes.” They react to the calamity with controlled fear. They hole up to try to wait it out and when that proves impossible, they work on a plan of escape. It’s the reaction that a rational person would believe to be the right one, and the group that we would hope to fall into. The group consists of David the artist (Thomas Jane), his son Billy, Ollie the highly competent Assistant Manager (Toby Jones), Amanda the teacher (Laurie Holden), Dan the original survivor, Irene the awesome old lady and a few others. They begin the film as the largest group, but their numbers quickly dwindle to attrition and conversion.
In any King work, it’s easy to spot the bad guy: the one spouting Bible verse. Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) starts the film as the town kook, but as things get worse and worse, her fanatical certainty starts to find appeal. She converts other survivors to her side with a mixture of hellfire, damnation and John Edward-style non-predictions. “Someone will die!” is not exactly a bold statement while surrounded by carnivorous hell-beasts.
The third group is one of the hardest to read. Led by David’s estranged neighbor and part-time douchebag Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), these people refuse to believe that anything supernatural is occurring. In Norton’s defense, this is before the monsters start showing up in force. He also refuses to look at proof when it is offered, based on a pathological fear of being made a fool. His arrogance and narcissism cause him to lead a group out into the mist. A simpler movie would have them be immediately, messily and loudly killed (as they are in the source novella). Instead, they merely disappear into the mist and are never seen again.
The final group is really just one person. Unnamed and credited merely as “Woman With Kids at Home,” she has only a few lines of dialogue. As her non-name strongly implies, she has kids at home, and when the mist hits the store, she wants to get back to them. She’s clearly terrified, asking those present to come with her: “Won’t someone see a lady home?” It’s not a request that any able-bodied person, especially a single man, should ever refuse. But the bachelors in the crowd (and David, who knows his wife is stuck at home with a huge broken picture window and might want to check on her) refuse. Most of them can’t even meet the Woman With Kids at Home’s eyes. Despite her fears, she bravely goes out into the mist to do the right thing. At the end, it’s made abundantly clear that she was the one who had the correct reaction to the catastrophe because she was the only one who thought of others first.
While watching, I couldn’t help but think that this was a Spielberg film that somehow had a set of balls Frankenstein-grafted onto it. The characters at the center are a father and son, the film expertly juxtaposes the fantastic and the mundane, and periodically expensive visual FX are obscured by mist. All of these things add up to Spielberg. But to paraphrase Darabont’s other great King adaptation: I wish I could tell you that David fought the good fight and the monsters let him be. I wish I could tell you that. But Darabont doesn’t live in Spielberg’s fairy tale world. The Mist is the movie I am most thankful that Spielberg didn’t get his hands on, even as Darabont owes a clear debt to E.T. and Poltergeist.
Frank Darabont has made three Stephen King works into films. Two are great and one is The Green Mile. The Mist shares the moral of The Shawshank Redemption, although it comes from a different place. Both movies place a premium on hope. Andy and Red keep theirs and get their happy ending in Zihuatanejo; Brooks doesn’t. In The Mist, it’s only when David loses hope that the worst happens. There are those who would say that hope was the cruelest thing Pandora gave us, but Darabont disagrees. He’s given us two damn fine films arguing his thesis. I’ve half a mind to provoke him just to get a third.