Frank Darabont has proven once again that he is one of the few filmmakers who can translate Stephen King’s work to film without reforging the stories on his own terms. The mass of King adaptations are either faithful failures or successes bearing little resemblance to the original tone. Not so for Darabont, who proves he can work the bleak and icky with the same deft hand that gave us the uplifting Shawshank Redemption.
The story is simple enough, and not even drawn from one of King’s most polished. A thick mist blows into town, transforming the world into a white, billowing void. From this mist emerge a stunning variety of Lovecraft-style bugs and other nasties, all with an appetite for human blood. Most of the action unfolds in the local grocery, where many of the town’s citizens find themselves under siege without means of escape.
Gradually, factions form in the debate over what to do. The level-headed group, led by tough family man Thomas Jane, clashes with several self-righteous “pillars” of the community vying for authority, as well as a religious fanatic (Marcia Gay Harden) whose prescriptions for the present trouble grow more and more drastic. While the social order collapses within, the barriers to the outside also diminish until pandemonium is more or less inevitable.
The film is up-tempo and jittery throughout, interspersing the tense human drama with aggressive spurts of bizarre monster action. Each time the humans attempt some escape or contact with the outside world, a new horror leaps at them from the mist. Gradually, the suggestion emerges that military testing at a nearby site has brought the trouble on them, compounding the fable into a cautionary tale but never overshadowing the main survival story.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this could have been a second-rate monster romp. However, by embracing its B-movie aspects but still playing it arrow-straight, Darabont weaves a keen and downbeat satire of society under pressure. The characters, though allegorical, are believable enough to root for and against with ease. The action scenes are truly frightening, as the desperate humans pose as much threat to one another as to their slimy foes in the ultimate battle for survival.
Leading man Thomas Jane does much to anchor the tale. With his rugged good looks and devotion to his young son, he is instantly the one we expect to prevail. Balancing his level-headed decency is Marcia Gay Harden, the town kook whose day seems to have come at last. Her icy menace, wrapped up in wild-eyed religious conviction, allows her to manipulate her cowed neighbors to her own blackhearted and frightening ends.
The supporting cast does a great job embodying the variety of colorful small-town folks which make King’s stories so appealing. They fall distinctly into good-guy and bad-guy camps under the strain of the situation, but as members of a close-knit society they are credible and interesting to watch. This is where Darabont best captures the spirit of King’s work.
The only real disappointment is Laurie Holden, as a kindred spirit and quasi-love interest for Jane’s character. This is primarily a scripting problem, as the actress is stuck with a character implausibly hung up on seeing people’s inner goodness, no matter what. But even as protector and secondary leader of the good guys she is more or less a wet noodle in an otherwise kinetic and engaging film.
Critics may point out that the monsters are not the most convincing you will see, and indeed a lot of the creature work is overly computer-generated. On the other hand, the monsters are truly outrageous and horrid, and in such a dark context a little dose of camp can remind us we are here to have fun. It is a reminder that we are watching a highly and deliberately stylized piece of work.
It is worth noting here that the source story ended on a suspended and ambiguous beat. Darabont, in a bold move which drew mixed critical response, stamps the film with a truly bleak conclusion of his own invention. Despite any criticism, the choice is consistent with the writer/director’s focus on the darker themes at work in the tale.
Thumbs up from this reviewer. Not many storytellers still have the guts to kick viewers in the ribs that way. But enough. See it and decide for yourself.