Friday, January 12, 2007

The Mosquito Coast

I must have watched the movie ‘The Mosquito Coast’ for the first time in the early 90’s. I truly enjoyed the film at that time and have watched it numerous times over the past few years. The film is based on a book by Paul Theroux of the same name. I have never read the book but I believe the film does not stray far from the novels subject matter. The film itself is complex with multiple themes which makes watching it over and over again a different experience. The characters are deep and symbolic and the relationships they share are multifaceted. The direction of the movie is good, but I am fascinated by this film because of the content and acting to some degree.

The story is narrated by Charlie Fox, a 15 year old boy played by River Phoenix. His farther, Allie Fox portrayed by Harrison Ford, is an idealistic estranged inventor who is disgusted by modern day America. The value system, the capitalist mentality, and lack of patriotism, but at the same time he sympathizes with immigrants who struggle to survive within the system because they have been duped by illusions of the American Dream. He also believes they had it better in the 3rd world they were living in. Early in the film it is established that Allie is a genius in is own right, a Harvard graduate who could have a high paying job if he wanted but rather opts not be a slave to the system. He is a family man with 4 children and a wife; clearly he is also an individualist who has deprived his family of what he could potentially deliver due to his gargantuan pride and idealistic nature. His family however respects him and his talents, perceiving their meager living as a small sacrifice to pay. I believe this was one of Ford’s earliest opportunities to play such a composite character. And in my opinion, he does it very well.

Allie decides to relocate his family to the Mosquito Coast where he promises them life in a tropical paradise. On the boat over they run into a family of missionaries. Herein the first layer of conflict lies. The missionary reaches out to Allie referring to bible verses, attempting to lure him into religion but Allie who is also well versed in biblical literature always has a powerful comeback. He has a great detest for religion and missionaries mocking their efforts. At the same time Charlie is developing a relationship with the minister’s daughter revealing another side to his character. Initially Charlie may be perceived as a child who blindly defends his father’s beliefs but it is quickly made clear that he is a thinker and he does genuinely believe in his fathers cause. It was also obvious to me that Charlie has taken a lot of slack in life due to Allie’s erratic nature. River Phoenix was an awesome actor and at the tender age of 15 he managed to bring conviction and honesty to the role of Charlie. Through the course of the film his view of his father is altered and his character is pivotal in the theme.

Upon arrival on the Mosquito Coast Allie quickly purchases a small village by the name of Guantanamo. He and his family expect to retreat away to a utopian paradise away from all the evils of contemporary culture, but instead they find shacks, a dusty clearing and shambles. Helen Mirren, simply referred to as Mother plays Allie’s wife. The relationship they share as a couple also adds a whole new dimension to the plot. One could actually watch this whole movie and notice only the relationships the characters share with one another. You could say that Mother was an abused woman, not physically in any way, but emotionally. Allie was such a dominating and powerful character that he would unconsciously trample upon the lives of the people close to him. And although Mirren portrays a seemingly meek character, she is actually the strongest character in the script, in fact the only one with a well grounded mind.

When I say this story is multi-layered, I mean it can be viewed from numerous angles and altered states of perception. Primarily there is the family outlook. You could analyze and contemplate the fragile nature of a family unit with their emotions being the loose strings that hold them together. The character of Charlie is also equally deep where he is torn between wanting to believe in his father and all he stands for and finally having to let go. His story is touching and heart wrenching. You could also see the story as a conflict between science and nature. Allie whose goal it was to remove his family from the modern life was in actuality compelled to build a sort of refrigerator and bring the natives ice. In the film he says “Ice is civilization” and although Allie wanted to get away from it all, his human nature was forcing him to create, build, and improve his surroundings. To improve upon what God made. The conflict between Allie and the missionary is in itself enough reason to watch this film or read the book. There is a whole sub-level of the story that is clearly god vs. nature vs. science and Theroux’s approach to dealing with this subject is magnificent.

The film climaxes with a colossal hurricane that in my opinion is a metaphor for Allie. Rarely in a film or novel have I seen such powerful characters that capture my imagination so vividly. Allie’s character was larger than life, larger than he himself could handle, let alone the people around him. He was the embodiment of the ideal man gone too far. There was one scene in which Allie defines determination and positively for me. He takes 2 of his sons and a group of villagers on a trek from Guantanamo through the mountains with a large block of ice. His mission was to show the ice to a remote tribe that had never seen ice before, to shock them. He imagined they would see the ice as a jewel and maybe even him as a god, although that was not his conscious desire. During the arduous trek, the ice wrapped in layers of cloth is melting, getting smaller by the day. Allie is fighting to attain his goal while his team and his own children are looking at him like he has lost his mind. They could not understand why he was so fixated on this goal and that even though his ice was turning to water he could not admit defeat and return home. He would rather mentally and physically torment himself and his own sons. As they looked at him sympathetically, with the look you would give a man who has lost his mind, he turns to them and says, ‘I bet you this is the first time ice has melted on this spot. Think about it.’

The Mosquito Coast is a fascinating movie to watch and I have forced many of my friends to watch it with me. I would love to get my hands on the book as well. From other reviews I have read it seems the screenplay is taken directly from the book so most advise not to get into both back to back, but both have equally good reviews. This story is in my opinion already a timeless classic.


kubolo bway said...

nice reflection Avi, i liked this piece too. Theroux has another piece thats supposed to be quite good too that would interest you: Hotel Honolulu, i got the book sometime back but never got round to reading it.

Avi said...

Thanks mate. I am surly going to read this and more of his works. Ro was telling me he also did some writing in Africa.

mogs said...

Yeah, I actually had the chance to attend a live interview of him when I was living in Honolulu as he lives in Hawaii for part of the year. He has done some extensive travel writing and I have heard that one of his latest additions "Dark Star Safari" is a very good read. I think this is what I will pick next. I am attaching the link here: