Movie Rehab: Harrison Ford goes mad in the jungle in Peter Weir's 'Mosquito Coast'
It is the responsibility of the working film critic to not only offer opinion and context for the newest releases, but also to constantly champion and curate the films that matter, especially if they were misunderstood or poorly released or somehow handled badly the first time around.
Critics should take it upon themselves to rehabilitate the under-loved, to defend the wrongly-maligned, and rehab the films that need it; it is the only way film as a whole can be healthy.
It does not escape me that many of Peter Weir's best films were adapted from novels. In the case of "The Mosquito Coast," it's a Paul Schrader adaptation of a Paul Theroux novel, and Schrader may have been the exact right person to try to wrestle that material up onto the screen.
After all, Schrader was the creator of Travis Bickle, whose monologues sound something like a less articulate, more desperate version of Allie Fox, and Schrader grew up as an outsider to mainstream culture, something that has informed much of his work over the years. When he looks at the commercialization and the sexualization and the nonstop sensory overload of pop entertainment, he sees it as someone who grew up with no movies, no TV, no real input like that. He views with with a detachment, and that allows him to fully experience what it is that characters like Travis and Allie or George C. Scott's desperate father in "Hardcore" feel as they drown in the seedy, awful world.
The film opens with Allie Fox already cranked up to high gear. He's fed up. He is repulsed by the America of the mid-'80s. He is tired of seeing Japanese products in American stores. He is xenophobic, but more than that, he's misanthropic. He does not care for people in general. It's not an uncommon position for very smart people, and Paul Theroux's work seems to run in this direction, anyway. He has created a number of main characters who are deeply critical of particular parts of modern society. Allie Fox is a brilliant man in many regards, and one of the things Weir does a strong job of underlining at the start of the film is how, despite the sort of non-stop simmering anger that is part of Allie's ongoing monologue about the world, his family loves and respects his genius.
When he demonstrates his invention for his employer, he's justifiably proud of himself, but Mr. Polski (Dick O'Neill) is beyond frustrated with him. He sees how genuinely great Fox's work is, but that doesn't matter. It's not what he hired him for, and he chews Allie out in front of his kids. The way Ford plays the reaction as he gets in the car is important. He masks the hurt and the rejection. "What would have happened if he'd liked it?" he asks his sons Charlie (River Phoenix) and Jerry (Jadrien Steele) as they get in the truck to leave. "Then I really would've been worried. Then I'd have gone back to bed." But he's hurt deeply, and we can see it.
One of my favorite things about this as a Harrison Ford performance is that it lets him talk to a degree that almost no other film has ever let him talk. Allie Fox is a man who likes the sound of his own voice, and who believes that his every thought is a profound gem to be turned over to his children. When he talks to Charlie and Jerry about the jungle where the migrant workers on Polski's asparagus fields came from, he talks about it as a paradise, a place where his ability to create ice would be valued, treated as something wonderful and special. It is a fantasy that he's describing, not based on any real practical knowledge of what life in the jungle would be like. Allie Fox talks a big game. He's like a lot of people, full of theories that he espouses as facts and he's just right enough about things, justified to just enough of a degree that he's a menace. When he takes his kids by the "monkey house," he tells his kids that they shouldn't indulge any racist talk about the migrant workers, but his brazen behavior, walking into their house so he can lecture his kids about it, is insulting at the very least, and more likely as racist as any overt act of hatred. Allie is a fairly condescending person, something that many hyper-liberals are guilty of as well. Actually, it's true of anyone who's an extremist, whether right or left. It's that feeling that you're absolutely right about something that makes you come across as an insufferable prick.
Weir tells the story from Charlie's point of view, and there are scenes where the world of adults is something mysterious, consisting of conversations behind closed doors and swirls of smoke and noise and men with drinks in their hands and laughter at things you don't understand. When Allie makes the decision to make good on his talk of leaving America behind, it's an adventure. It's presented as this exciting and weird thing, and there's one moment in particular as they're leaving when Mother Fox (Helen Mirren) looks at the dishes in the sink, still steaming from just being washed, and she smiles. She has no idea what they're about to do, what they're going to go through. She's just happy because Allie's happy and he's determined and he seems like he's got a plan.
The passage down to Mesquitia on the boat sets up one of the key relationships in the film, the antagonistic clash between Allie Fox and Reverend Spellgood (Andre Gregory). Allie loves to poke at the Reverend. He knows the Bible well, and whenever he senses the Reverend warming up to share some homily, he deflates him as quickly and as pointedly as he can. The Reverend's daughter Emily is played by Martha Plimpton, and she and Phoenix are very funny in their scenes together. She's nothing if not direct in their first long conversation. She builds to finally asking him if he has a girlfriend, pleased by his irritated response. Her timing is deadly as she gets up to walk away, big smile on her face. "I can be your girlfriend. If you want. I think about you when I go to the bathroom." God bless Martha Plimpton, who loves knowing she's flustered him, and his reaction is solid gold teenaged befuddlement.
Weir drives home the presence of the missionaries as something that particularly perturbs Allie. His plan is very loose, basically one step at a time. It's not until they're in Mesquitia that he really works out where they're going, what part of the jungle is going to be theirs. He buys a town called Geronimo. Mr. Haddy (Conrad Roberts) is the boat captain who takes them up the river to Geronimo, and he's part of that adventure. It's gorgeous and green and remote, and Maurice Jarre's score is one of the things that I wish had gotten more attention when the film came out. He's the composer of the score for my favorite film, "Lawrence Of Arabia," and that film's score captures the sweeping military drive of the main character, of the situation itself. Here, Jarre's score is liquid, languid, something to melt into, at least in these early sequences of the trip to Geronimo. This was his third film in a row with Weir, and none of his scores sound like the other between this and "Witness" and "The Year Of Living Dangerously." Likewise, John Seale was still relatively early in his career at this point. He'd worked on a few films of note, like "Witness" and "Children Of A Lesser God" and "The Hitcher" and "BMX Bandits," and a film like "The Mosquito Coast" must have seemed like nothing but opportunity, pure bliss. It's hard to find a bad shot when you're shooting in the jungle.