The Film: The Mosquito Coast (1986)

The Principals: Peter Weir (Director).  Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, River Phoenix, Conrad Roberts, Andre Gregory, Martha Plimpton (remember her?) and Jason Alexander shows up for a second.

The Premise: Fed up with American materialism and conformity, brilliant inventor Allie Fox (Ford) decides to pack up and movie his family to the Central American island of Mosquita in search of new and better frontiers. But things go out of control when Fox is unable to really keep his Utopian obsessions in check. His search for paradise leads his family into hell.

Is It Good: It’s brilliant. This is one of the great films of the 80s and it really is a shame it doesn’t come up in discussion very often. Paul Schrader knows a couple of things about obsession, and he proves to be the perfect person to adapt Paul Theroux’s sprawling novel. He distills it, while not sacrificing its scope. Peter Weir understands this too. With the aid of John Seale’s stunning photography, he hits just the right notes to tell the story, with masterful pacing that allows the movie to breathe when it has to – only to suddenly leap into very unexpected, but effective thriller territory in the third act. That kind of shift in tone would damage many films, but Weir maintains the balance at just the right pitch and Maurice Jarre’s subtle score complements everything wonderfully.

As far as acting, Weir assembled quite a cast for this. Harrison Ford has probably never been better than he is here. Allie Fox is the most complex character he’s ever portrayed and Ford is not afraid to let him be an asshole. At the same time, he finds the humanity in the character (you truly hate him in the novel – not so much here) and, while some may argue it was a commercial decision to make the character more sympathetic, I think it’s necessary to help us grasp where he’s coming from. You can never condone Allie Fox as he puts his family through Hell on Earth, but you can understand why he makes those choices. Ford was Oscar nominated for Witness – a good, but much more conventional performance. He deserved more accolades than he got here.

The rest of the people do an equally great job.

Helen Mirren is phenomenal, suffering her husband’s obsessions while refusing to simply be the put upon wife. River Phoenix will remind you what a loss his death was. Playing Ford’s son, he narrates the story and is basically asked to bear the ultimate emotional weight of the proceedings. He has to be the audience surrogate and act as a tour guide on this dark journey. It’s a challenge that he rises up to very commendably.

Andre Gregory’s portrayal of a pompous missionary who clashes with Fox is slightly cartoony in tone, but it works for the character. Both Ford’s and Gregory’s characters arrive to the Central American jungle with the goal of offering the natives paradise. And there is irony to be found when it is the atheist Ford who ultimately plays God. You could argue that it’s a slight miscalculation to make Gregory’s character so foppish that it’s too easy to side with Ford. Ultimately, I think it’s clear that both men are wrong. The cartoony treatment of the minister is probably just Schrader lashing out at his own strict religious upbringing. Whatever the case, it doesn’t damage the film and Gregory is fun to watch in this role.

Anyway… All I can do is gush. I can’t be snarky or cute when talking about this movie. It’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking and Harrison Ford’s best film.

Is It Worth A Look: Obviously yes. And here’s something to think about… Consider that this film was a huge commercial disappointment upon its initial release. Now, think about the implications of that. This was a period in Ford’s career where he was probably the top box office star in the world. He had just delivered yet another hit in 1984 with an Indiana Jones sequel. And he made a very important and very wise decision. He decided to start expanding his horizons as an actor and focus on more serious, less commercial films. So, he teamed up with Peter Weir for the great one-two punch of Witness and The Mosquito Coast, then with Roman Polanski for Frantic. Amazing. And, were the mainstream public less hypocritical, maybe today Ford would be less of “that guy who screams about working around the clock” and more the respected, prestigious actor he was seeking (and deserved) to be.

Witness was a hit. But that’s easy. He wasn’t entirely out of his comfort zone. It’s a more dramatic film than Temple of Doom, but it still boils down to Ford being the hero cop who blows evil Danny Glover away.

But in The Mosquito Coast he went into Nicholson mode, playing a guy you don’t really like. A selfish man who essentially destroys his family just to fulfill a crazy ambition. Audiences loved him when he was swinging that whip, or flying that Millennium Falcon or even saving that little Amish boy. But, give them something different… Something daring and creative… Oh, how quickly their backs turn.

The Polanski movie did a little better. But it was a kind of dark, odd “French movie” and who wants to see Han Solo in that?

Is it any wonder Ford pretty much stopped taking chances?

So, basically, this is definitely worth a look because it reminds you of something that people forget. As much as Ford was (and is) a great movie star, he is also a fine actor – capable of truthful, electrifying performances. I really hope there’s at least one more of these in him.

Random Anecdote: My dad loves Gabriel Garcia Marquez and, therefore, he’s always been rather cold on this film. Upon his first viewing of it (at which I was present), he scoffed that it was a “ripoff” of 100 Years Of Solitude. Now, he obviously didn’t mean that literally (he’s not insane), but he took issue with how both works begin with a son talking about the day his father showed him the miracle of ice.

It’s interesting to me that this bothers him so much and I don’t really understand why.

There’s also the possibility that my father, a bit of a dreamer himself, found himself within the character of Allie Fox and it bothered him that this kindred spirit was portrayed as a villain.

I don’t know.

I wonder if the movie has grown on him at all.

Cinematc Soulmates: At Play in the Fields of the Lord, There Will Be Blood, Fitzcarraldo.