Would that THE MIST, Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella, were just about things that go bump in the fog. It would be so much easier to reassure oneself that it’s just a story and then go out in the real world secure in the knowledge that nothing like that could ever happen except on the screen, or in King’s effulgent imagination. Instead, the monsters of the piece aren’t just what’s lurking outside the door. They’re also the human beings cowering inside that door who, when hope is gone do things that are otherwise unthinkable. Darabont deftly makes this a character piece rather than a conventional horror film. In fact, the threat from without could just as easily have been a famine, a ravening band of hyenas, or a ravening band of terrorists for that matter when it comes to what the film is really about.
Most of the action takes place in a small town grocery store where locals and weekenders are trapped by a mysterious mist that has enveloped the town. This isn’t, of course, just any mist. According to one local, the one who comes running into the market, nose bloody, it’s just eaten someone. And because there are certain rules that must be followed in all films of this nature, there is one guy who exclaims some version of “nuts” before striking out and becoming the next meal for whatever it is that is out there. The first assumption is that it’s a toxic cloud from the nearby military base where weird experiments are rumored to be taking place. Certainly that would explain why artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) saw troops on the move as he headed into town with his son, Billy, and litigious neighbor, Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) to buy the fixings to repair damage to their homes after a freak electrical storm that knocked out the power as well as one of his walls. It might also explain the police cars racing along, sirens blaring, and the air raid siren wailing when it’s not time for the noon test of same. But after something unfortunate happens to the box boy, something involving a very big tentacle with very sharp claws and possibly a mouth, passive toxic substances seem like a cheery alternative.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s a cohort of unbelievers, soon to be a key word, in the crowd, led by Brent, who is convinced that the locals are trying to play a practical joke on him. And if THAT wasn’t bad enough, there’s the local crazy lady (Marcia Gay Hardin), preaching the end of the world and God’s wrath going from annoyance to prophet for another cohort as things become more dire.
Darabont cleverly builds suspense by at first keeping what it is exactly outside the grocery store cloaked in the mist that brought it. It’s just bits and pieces in shadow, and it’s a toss-up whether getting a good look at some of them, rendered with creepy realism by the effects folk, is worse than not knowing. They are just alien enough to be disturbing, just familiar enough to trigger instinctive subliminal reactions. It’s definitely worse to see what happens as the huddled mass breaks up into increasingly antagonistic factions over what it all means and what to do about it. His style is not flashy, but very effective, as are the changes, subtle and not, be brings to King’s story.
He works just as well when building suspense indoors. The way he sets up the scene someone venturing into the parking lot to retrieve a gun, a rope tied around his waist, plays into the unknown outside, but also the ebbing hope of those inside. The way that they watch the play of the rope coupled with the audience’s knowledge of what is probably, almost certainly, is going to happen, creates a sense of dread that grows geometrically while making the viewer forget to breathe.
Jane is great as the regular-guy hero, albeit one with dazzling good looks. There isn’t a trace of irony to his performance, nor of swagger, but instead, like the film itself, a quietly engaging intensity, whether resorting to the flaming torch school of monster fighting, or trying to comfort Billy (Nathan Gamble heartbreaking as the scared kid trying to be brave) by promising him that everything will be alright. Braugher is prickly and ego-driven, exactly the type that would sneer at something he doesn’t fit in with his world view. Toby Jones as Ollie, the store’s assistant manager with unexpectedly acute powers of psychological dissection, plays macho in a way that makes his tiny frame seem monumental. Hardin, though, gets the showiest part and runs with it. Dredging up torrents of vitriol disguised as religious fervor she is steely and terrifying as she gets the calm of insanity while spewing apocalyptic rhetoric as though it were the most reasonable answer to everything.
THE MIST works as a horror film, right down to the old lady who is a caution with bug spray and the sweet kids in the throes of first love. But there is more going on as it considers class, religion, and the terror of the easy answer to the more difficult questions, or monsters, that life throws with wild abandon.