The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Written by Paul Schrader
Directed by Peter Weir
Peter Weir was going to make a movie of Paul Theroux’s novel. Weir bought the film rights as soon as it was published in 1981 and was in pre-production when he was sidetracked with Witness. Unlike Witness, a side project for Weir, which gained massive critical and audience acclaim, The Mosquito Coast is considered a box office failure. Even critics were unsure what to make of this very different, bleak film. Harrison Ford was cast completely against type, one of the movie’s most interesting elements. But apparently, moviegoers and critics wanted something less abrasive, so Weir was dealt the first of several blows in the middle part of his career.
Allie Fox (Ford) is an inventor with a very eccentric personality. He’s disgruntled with the American Dream and sees the United States as spiraling into an abyss. His latest creation is an ice machine that burns wood and uses ammonia to achieve its goal. Fox realizes this would revolutionize developing nations and packs up his wife (Helen Mirren) and four children (River Phoenix as the eldest Charlie) and moves into a small rainforest village in Central America. Things seem hopeful at first; a sense of adventure overtakes the family as they face the elements and begin to forge something of substance in the wilderness. But both nature and humanity alike have other plans, and it becomes clear that Fox’s dream has become a nightmare.
The entirety of The Mosquito Coast is centered on the hubris of Allie Fox to believe he could tame the wilds of a foreign land. That sounds an absolutely fascinating theme to explore, and it’s made even more intriguing with a leading man like Ford. Audiences were used to seeing the actor play loveable scoundrels or charming curmudgeons. They certainly had their expectations challenged with the manic mood swings of Allie Fox. This is a protagonist hyper-fixated on his particular obsessions and ranting about the decline of the Western world. Even more damning is Fox’s lack of compassion and care for his family. They are expected to follow wherever he leads, and their input on mistakes he’s making are ignored. For moviegoers that wanted a crowd-pleasing movie or a drama in the vein of Witness, they were going to be disappointed.
Much of The Mosquito Coast feels like it should evoke the sense of mystery found in Picnic at Hanging Rock or The Last Wave. You have a white man thrust into the middle of a world he doesn’t understand, trying to impose his systems of beliefs because they are “better.” Sadly, the script is very uneven and doesn’t clearly establish conflicts. There’s a priest (Andre Gregory) who represents the ideological nadir of Fox; there are three guerilla rebels that threaten to take everything Fox has made, and then nature itself causes havoc. There’s so much potential here, but Weir feels scattered, as if he’s trying to include too much of the novel rather than pare away the excess and deliver a more concise narrative.
There are so many more interesting films that tackle this concept of the white man’s folly in the jungle, and The Mosquito Coast doesn’t really do much new other than featuring the crazed white man’s family. Though the script isn’t stellar, the acting is outstanding. River Phoenix was fresh from Stand By Me and continued to show why he was considered such a fantastic up-and-coming actor. He’s the film’s narrator, looking back on this time with his father from not too far in the future. The problem with that narrative device is that his commentary doesn’t always work with what is happening in the movie. It would have been great if his reminiscences provided a more profound critique of Fox’s actions, but they don’t add to the story in any significant way, more poetic reflective asides.
The film’s most confounding and underdeveloped character is Mother, played by Helen Mirren. She’s unnamed and exists as completely passive to Fox’s bizarre decisions on where the family should go. I was a bit confused about her lack of speaking up against her husband, endangering her family, and just sort of going along. She could be passive when it comes to Fox and still be an interesting character if the story explored the roots of the passivity, but we don’t get that at all. You’ll walk away from the film having zero understanding of her thoughts & fears, how she fell in love with Fox and why they remain together. All one big missed opportunity. It’s made even worse because Mirren is such a fantastic actor that she could have done so much with a meatier part.
Everything about The Mosquito Coast should have worked, but I am surprised that Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, The Card Counter) didn’t deliver something better. Even stranger is that, if it was the script that was the problem, how Weir didn’t manage to salvage it if he was so passionate about the project. I suspect that Weir was so elated about the novel that he let his love of the book get in the way of making a film that should have been his crown jewel.