Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"The Mosquito Coast" in Film and Print

I'm probably going to roll full bore into spoiler territory here, but the film's been out since 1986, and the book was published in 1982.

I'm a huge fan of Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast. It's an amazing movie, featuring Harrison Ford in what is, hands down the greatest performance he ever gave on film. His Allie Fox was a creation of anger and brilliance all rolled into a big ball of impending tragedy.

It's the story of an inventor, Allie Fox, who, embittered by the consumer "cesspool" America has become, movies his family to the jungles of Central America. Here he buys a town "Jeronimo," and, though force of will and his own scientific knowledge, carves a seemingly perfect outpost in the jungle. He even builds a giant ice maker in the jungle, with the idea of amazing the natives with this bit of civilization.

It all goes downhill from there.

The movie is truly exquisite. Ford is brilliant, River Phoenix is brilliant as the eldest boy, Charlie, and Helen Mirren is perfect as Allie's wife, called only "Mother." The Script, by Paul Schrader, is excellently constructed, and Peter Weir puts it all on screen with the staggeringly beautiful images he's known for.

As a young man, I was 15 when the movie was released, I was utterly starstruck by Harrison Ford. to this day, I look at his run during the 80's as the model of, not only how to be a movie star, but how to be an actor. He inhabited roles simply, building character out of physicality and the needs of the story. You rarely saw him take "award moments." It was acting as craft, hard work, and simplicity. I still aim for that when i get to walk on a stage.

Allie Fox was a meaty, chewy, showboaty kind of role, the kind of thing Jack Nicholson would chewed the hell out of in the 70's, but Ford didn't attack it that way. He just became Fox. Actually, many people felt like it was the role he was born to play, and performance closest to hims self. Rumor is, friends referred to The Mosquito Coast as The Harrison Ford Story.

Even as a kid, I was dazzled by this film. Frankly, it's not what I would've gravitated toward. I was into bit event pictures (In truth, I still am), but there was something in Allie Fox that was magnetic to me. There are scenes in this film that remind me so much of my father. There's a scene involving a lecture begun, then drown out by a chainsaw, that is so much my father I can't hardly stand it.

I pointed it out to my dad when I was a kid, and it's only now, years later that I wonder what he must've thought, having me compare him to a character that basically tortures, and nearly destroys, his family. My father-son issues are near-legendary, but, that little Freudian connection was completely lost on me then. I just thought it was funny, and reminded me of trying to work with my dad.

So, yeah...I love this movie. As a MAJOR Harrison Ford fan, I consider it the best acting you will ever see him do. The two closest performances would be in Witness, and Presumed Innocent. He should've won Best actor that year, but it went to Paul Newman for The Color of Money. I guess if you have to be denied by someone....

However, in all the time I've been a fan of this film, I had never cracked the novel it was based on, by Paul Theroux. I finally found myself think I ought to rectify that a couple of weeks ago, and picked up a copy.

The first thing to say is, if you're familiar with the film, there are relatively few surprises in the book. Schrader's adaptation is extremely faithful to Theroux's novel. Right down to lines of dialogue. I have to admit, I was surprised at this. There are some changes in details, and a journey upriver with a huge block of ice that is omitted from the movie. The book also goes slightly further after the film ends the story. Allie's ultimate fate is much slower, and far more painful than what Schrader and Weir gave us.

I was also very amused that the Harrison Ford "FINGER OF DOOM" is a huge thing in the book, long before Ford would ever be cast. Allie is always poking and wagging his finger at people. This amused me no end.

I have to say Theroux is a fantastic writer, and his prose is tight and to the point, while still able to convey the multiple levels of meaning that pervade this story. Allie's descent is physical, mental and spiritual, all while he's elevating himself toward Godhood. It's all deep, meaningful stuff, but Theroux keeps himself centered on the story, not the subtext.

One great help in this is the use of Charile as the narrator, which is also the case in the film. Charlie is just a kid, and a confused, scared one, at that. As things go wrong for the Fox family (in addition to Charlie, there's a younger brother, and two twin girls), Charlie only sees this as part of his world. A world that's naturally smaller for children, but also is aggressively limited by his father. Theroux does a fine job of setting this as a memory, without having the adult overwhelm the child's viewpoint.

I've done a lot of work with Shane by Jack Schaefer, and my thoughts tended to compare and contrast the two books. Schaefer's novel is much shorter, and simpler, working as a western morality play. Yet, both works trade heavily on the father/son dynamic. As Bob learns of the nobility of his father in Shane, Charlie suffers through the long fall of his father from a position of perfection he holds in the early chapters. Allie Fox never fails to tell everyone he is always right, all while events move to prove him wrong time and time again. Shane's Bob Starrett is exactly the opposite.

The other thought I had was far more current events-related. This is a powerful engrossing story about how placing oneself as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong will ultimately lead to downfall. As I look around at the political arguments around me, all I see are lines of Allie Foxes. Ideologues intent on proving that that are the absolute moral authority, and prepared to bully and shout down anyone who disagrees. You admire this in Allie at first, when he runs a sniveling missionary out of his settlement at Jeronimo, but, as his certainty devolves into megalomania, you realize the destructiveness, the ignorance of such a stance.

If you are a fan of the film, I do heartily recommend the novel. Heck, I just recommend it in general.

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