Writers: Paul Theroux & Paul Schrader
Stars: Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, and River Phoenix
Allie Fox (Harrison Ford) is an inventor, father, and husband. His wife trusts him and his children revere him almost unto a god. He is completely self-confident and truly believes he is always right. Allie Fox is also disillusioned with America.
Fed up, he takes his family and whatever they can carry, and sails to Belize on a container ship. On board they are joined by missionaries returning to their mission. The self-reliant Fox clashing with Rev. Spellgood (Andre Gregory) immediately. Once in port the families part ways; Fox hoping never to see Spellgood again.
In the city, one raucous night after many drinks and a long conversation with a drunk American, Fox purchases the village of Geronimo located upstream. The next day the family charters a small river boat to ferry them to their new home. Arriving to squalor the ever optimistic–delusional (?)–Allie Fox starts reshaping the village to his image. But all is not paradise when ego & hubris prevail over the common good & decency.
Mosquito Coast is based on the Paul Theroux book of the same name. The story is similar to Heart of Darkness in that the further upstream the family proceeds, the further into the heart of darkness Allie Fox will journey. At its most basic, the story is a fall from grace. A story of how pride and its sister, ego, can blind you. This theme is also carried through the sub-plot of science (Allie Fox) versus religion (Rev. Spellgood). Both men are in the jungle for the same reason, to improve the lives of those there; and both men succeed. But both men fail to see the good of each other because of the ego of their personal beliefs. You are either with them or against them.
The greatest strength of the film is the acting. This is Harrison Ford’s best performance. When we first meet Allie Fox we meet a jaded blowhard who has an opinion about everything. A man with an edge but a man with a heart. The Allie Fox at the end of the film is a man who has fallen over the edge; a dangerous man; a man capable of anything no matter the cost. Ford deftly molds his character from driven father to abusive despot. And through it all you always see the power of the character to command people’s attention and gain their control. Helen Mirren, as Mother, holds her own against the supercharged Ford, though she has less to work with in terms of character development. She is the loyal and trusting wife–loyal to a fault. The sad truth of her character is that she always had the power to stop Allie but failed to act. Even near the end when presented with the choice whether to turn back or continue upstream, she allows him to continue upstream. It is only at the end when she finally sees what he has become that she says enough. It is only because if Mirren’s performance do we believe this wallflower had the internal strength to make that decision. You see fleeting moments in her eyes throughout the film where she knows they are making a bad choice and debates challenging him, but ultimately decides to have faith and trust him.
The quality of the child actors depends on the material they are given to work with. Hilary and Rebecca Gordon as the Fox twins are non-existent in terms of character development, and are in the film only to add additional elements of danger to the family. Jadrien Steele as Jerry Fox has more to do, and he carries the change well. Jerry, like all the children admires his father. Later, though, he is the first to hate him; so much so to even suggest abandoning him. But, as a boy would, he in the end fears losing his father and is scared of life without him. The change in his face when he watches his father in the beginning of the film to the end is all you have to see to know how much Allie Fox has fallen in his children’s eyes.
River Phoenix is the stand-out performance among the children, and is equal to Harrison Ford overall—though in a less showy role. His Charlie Fox is a son who holds his father on a pedestal, but also a boy on the cusp of starting the journey into becoming a man. He is eager to please his father as well as is in awe of him. But as Allie goes though his journey so does Charlie. As Allie becomes less and less about family, Charlie becomes more. He rises to the occasion of becoming a surrogate father to his siblings and protector to his mother. More importantly, Phoenix’s Charlie–and this has always been one of Phoenix’s greatest attributes as an actor–maintains his humanity and vulnerability while gaining an inner strength of character.
Charlie’s journey is made easier for us to witness because of the director, Peter Weir. The film is figuratively shown through Charlie’s eyes and heard in his voice. Narration, when used, is by Charlie. How we perceive Allie Fox is how Charlie sees him. And how we see the film is how Charlie remembers it. The beginning of their journey is joyous and adventurous. The end is dark and fearful. At their most desperate, the voices of a choir sound as if angels are singing.
Weir and Schrader, the screenwriter, also use dramatic irony to good effect. The atheists inventor corrects the christian missionary on biblical scripture. The scene when Rev. Spellgood visits Geronimo is a masterclass on the subject. The man of God Rev. Spellgood on the river dock bids everyone a loud, “a very good morning to you.” Mother Fox retorts with a whispered, “Oh God,” under her breath. Spellgood approaches Allie Fox with a staff in hand as Moses freeing his people, but quotes Pharaoh instead. Fox approaches Spellgood with a carpenters belt & hammer. To Spellgood’s claim that he came because the Lord sent him, Allie replies, “the Lord doesn’t know this place exists,” that he in fact is the savior here.
Weir also fashions Allie Fox into Dr. Frankenstein. His great invention—the machine that can make ice from fire—is his monster. Allie speaks of it in the masculine, always “he”. Its mechanisms his insides: his lungs, spleen, intestines, etc. When his monster comes to life Allie Fox is a proud father. And when his monster is killed it dies in fire and with an actual roar. Its death leaves disaster, death, and destruction. Its death finally breaks Allie Fox; its death pushing him over the razor’s edge.
Ultimately, though, Rita Kempley from the Washington Post said it best, “Sooner or later a man of invention will pollute paradise, a grand contradiction that gives Mosquito its bite and Ford inspiration for his most complex portrayal to date. As a persona of epic polarities, he animates this muddled, metaphysical journey into the jungle.” The journey is muddled. There is a key moment where faith & trust in Allie Fox from his family is lost due to a lie. The story then loses our faith & trust when it causes Allie’s family to lie to him. Though you understand where they are coming from and can empathize with their decision, that decision allows Allie Fox to be able to live with his choices.
Grade = B+