REVIEW: The Mosquito Coast [1986]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 117 minutes
    Release Date: November 26th, 1986 (USA)
    Studio: Warner Bros.
    Director(s): Peter Weir
    Writer(s): Paul Schrader / Paul Theroux (novel)

Ice is civilization.

Anyone who has lived through the COVID pandemic with a MAGA-touting Trump lover in the family knows Allie Fox (Harrison Ford): a man so crippled by inadequacy and fear that he’ll twist himself into a pretzel to feign righteousness. It’s therefore interesting that this character is both anti-capitalism and anti-God since those are usually the means that facilitate that twist. But you listen to Allie’s opening rant (to his son Charlie, as played by River Phoenix, and ultimately to anyone in earshot of his intentionally sanctimonious shouting) and it’s so familiar: “America’s once great nation of promise and freedom has been ruined beyond recognition.” Rather than take up the mantle to “make it great again,” however, he decides to jump ship and create a country of his own.

Where? The Mosquito Coast of the Caribbean. Why there? Because its raw materials will help him build a civilization in his image while also becoming its peoples’ God as a savior of untold secrets (ice). I guess he’s not quite an atheist after all. He simply rejects the God Christianity shoved down his throat because his genius (a character calls him the most dangerous type of man because he’s a “know-it-all who’s sometimes right”) and scientific acumen allows him to be everything believers crave in the flesh. So he quits his job, packs up his wife (Helen Mirren, known only as “Mother” because Allie is that kind of guy) and children (another boy besides Charlie and twin girls), and buys the town of Geronimo to become its mayor.

Adapted from Paul Theroux‘s novel by Paul Schrader, director Peter Weir‘s cinematic adventure is intentionally drawn as a morality tale destined for karmic retribution. We know it during that opening rant courtesy of a hardware store clerk (played by Jason Alexander) rolling his eyes the moment Allie walks through the door. This isn’t a man people rally around. He’s a bully who knows his worth and can’t handle when the stuff he creates isn’t what anyone wanted. He subsequently martyrs himself. Or worse: he repackages each scheme in a way that renders its failure a success through sheer force of will. And because he’s generally right even if he has to mold the context of his actions to prove it, his acolytes follow him to Hell.

While Mother and Charlie are his most devout followers, Allie brings more into his flock once his ingenuity proves to be legitimately God-like for the inhabitants of Geronimo. Because he’s unparalleled when he acts on the actual problem at-hand. The problem has to be big enough that his penchant to over-complicate matters doesn’t kill it before it even starts, but he’s a man of integrity that demands respect when getting his hands dirty right alongside his subordinates. And that’s exactly what his family, Mr. Haddy (Conrad Roberts), and the others are. The only time Allie treats anyone as an equal is when his desired outcome has already been achieved. The moment things veer off-course, he ignores their opinions to avoid ever confronting the reality of his own infallibility.

What then is The Mosquito Coast‘s goal? To show us Allie’s unchecked hubris? I want to believe that’s the case, but Weir’s film too often shines him as an empathetic soul crushed by a system that in turn absolves him of the true depths of his guilt. Ford’s performance is very effective in showing us a side of him that his family can’t see thanks to the camera’s ability to shine a light on his acknowledgement of his failures before he flips a switch in his head to wipe the slate clean and begin twisting this latest tragedy into a positive as though he planned it all along. Should we laud his optimism even though it’s ruining lives? Does his intelligence give his rage a pass?

We shouldn’t and it shouldn’t. Yet Weir and company appear to want us to treat Allie like a misunderstood hero instead of an off-his-rocker egotist anyway. It’s a tough sell, though, when he consistently pushes away necessary help so that he can fuel his personal drive towards self-sufficiency. Allie has rejected the wealth-based materialism of Reagan so vehemently that he’s gone all the way around to become just as tyrannical with his intellect serving as this village’s major export. He has become the system he tells himself that he hates by treating the Black and Brown Caribbean natives he’s lording over as savages in need of his wits. Allie talks about America turning laborers into slaves while doing the exact same thing, blind to the hypocrisy.

Add his one-sided feud with a missionary (Andre Gregory‘s Reverend Spellgood) and you wonder if the film is treating very broad generalizations with too much earnestness. Everything is drawn so blatantly cartoonish in its mirroring (Allie as both America and God) and its modes of retribution (Allie’s ideals are always tested in ways that force him to destroy everything he’s built—including his family) that the serious tone complicates the messaging by pretending there’s a second side to this man’s utter devolution. We know from the beginning that Allie is incapable of seeing reason, so the examples presented of that truth should be absolute rather than complex. We should be worrying about Charlie, Mother, and the others surviving him—not whether Allie will ever shed stubbornness for humility.

Phoenix narrating the film also doesn’t mean it’s actually from his perspective. That would have been better because Allie’s actions would be colored by Charlie’s filter. To have the boy’s words and the father’s deeds run as parallel focuses therefore causes a contradictory duplicity that forces us to question their story’s purpose beyond man’s need for mental health assistance. The text thankfully works to upend the obvious “white savior” narrative inherent to the plot in some regards (it hardly dismantles it completely when Reverend Spellgood remains a “positive” figure simply because he hasn’t gone crazy in his own God-like ambitions), but the plot still uses its non-white characters as pawns to its white narrative and therefore proves as flawed a product of its time as its problematic protagonist.

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