Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

About two years after the cancer death of his wife Mary (Debra Messing), journalist John Klein (Richard Gere) suddenly finds himself sitting in his car outside of a farm, in some sort of rural area. It is night, and Klein has not the slightest idea how he got where he ended up. He only knows for sure that his car is dead. Later, Klein will learn he is in the outskirts of the small West Virginia town of Point Pleasant. The town is in the opposite direction from where Klein wanted to go, and there isn’t any realistic possibility of him having reached it in the time that has passed since got in his car in Washington. It’s by far not the last bit of strangeness he will encounter.

In fact, before he can even start on trying to understand his own private case of teleportation, he has more pressing matters to attend to. Apparently, someone looking exactly like Klein has been disturbing the owner (Will Patton) of the farm where he has appeared during the last two nights, so when a rather confused journalist knocks on the man’s door to ask for help for his ailing car and for information on where the hell he has ended up, Klein’s supposed third appearance is greeted with a shotgun in his face. After local cop Connie Mills (Laura Linney) has been called in and has defused the situation (working on the assumption that semi-famous journalists can’t be crazy), she explains to Klein that there has been quite a bit of weird stuff going on in town during the last few weeks. The populace is haunted by strange phone calls, inexplicable lights in the sky, and the appearance of a huge, winged humanoid creature with glowing red eyes, as if reality has worn out around them. It’s the description of that creature that really gets to Klein, for it looks exactly like something his wife had seen and drawn obsessively shortly before her death.

So Klein finds himself drawn into investigating what increasingly look like attempts at communication from an entity from some kind of Outside. The journalist is unsure what it is the entity tries to communicate exactly - perhaps it wants to warn about some future catastrophe, perhaps it tries to cause it, or it may have reasons not parsable by humans at all. Whatever the thing is, and whatever it wants to say, Klein slowly becomes obsessed with it and its messages, much to the detriment of little things like his own sanity.

Mark Pellington’s The Mothman Prophecies (of course based on the “non-fiction” book by John A. Keel) is another of those long-time favourites of mine I never seem to get around to writing up. As a mix of one of my very favourite pieces of Fortean mythology – Keel in general being a particular favourite of mine in this realm - with a bit of psychological melodrama, and some Hollywood slickness, it’s not exactly a type of film we get to see very often.

Pellington is just the right director for this sort of thing, coming from a music video background but showing obvious interest in experimental film techniques that turn out to work rather well for The Mothman Prophecies’ trippier sequences. Here, the technical slickness typical of directors coming from the music video world is tempered by a sense for the strange and the slightly surreal, creating many a scene that feels off in just the right way for the film, while still looking absurdly polished. Particularly the film’s middle is full of moments where it believably feels like Pellington is making the attempt to show how his characters translate things human senses aren’t made to experience into something more palatable for them, yet which even after this translation still feel off, like bad dreams. Even the somewhat more Hollywood-style ending sequence featuring the climactic catastrophe fits in here, as it is staged more than a nightmare than an attempt at naturalistic reproduction and so never breaks the tone Pellington has set until then.

The more usual psychological elements work just as well, with Gere portraying Klein’s increasing estrangement from reality more convincing than I’d have expected him to, while interpreting the man’s mental state in an appropriately ambiguous manner. Consequently we’re never quite sure what we are witnessing: an encounter with the inexplicable or “just” a guy finally breaking down from the trauma caused by the death of his wife, or perhaps a mixture of the two.

Still, the film never attempts to explain everything we see or hear as simple mass hysteria. Rather, it emphasises the strangeness of whatever it is that contacts Klein and the people of Point Pleasant, something so weird a human can’t cope with it on its own terms. The Keel stand-in of the movie, one Alexander Leek (Alan Bates), compares what’s happening to a human trying to make contact with a cockroach – humans being the cockroach in this case – which is as good an explanation of the word “alien” in a more cosmic sense as any.

And even though the entity does do Klein and some people a good turn in the end, the film stays completely ambiguous if this is an act of kindness, a mistake, or part of something else we wouldn’t even have words for, demonstrating that you can have cosmicism while still having a happy end (sorry, Mr. Joshi), and that slickness in a movie doesn’t necessarily have to mean stupidity.

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