Saturday, March 9, 2013

#152: The Mothman Prophecies (Mark Pellington, 2002)

Memory is unreliable, to say the least. I distinctly remember seeing the trailers for this movie on TV 13 years ago and laughing at what I thought was a movie about Richard Gere being chased by a giant moth. What a terrible idea for a movie that I would gladly watch. I just watched the trailer on the Internet to confirm my memory of how this film was marketed, and I was way off. The trailer fairly accurately represents this creepy, though uneven and too slick, paranormal suspense thriller. I'd like to see my alternate universe Richard Gere vs. giant moth movie, though. Get on that shit, Hollywood jerks. I suggest a scene where Gere punches the moth in its face. Also, please work in the following lines of dialogue: "I didn't get a Harvard law degree so I could get my ass kicked by a goddamn giant moth," and "A giant moth with an attitude problem? Sounds like my ex-wife."
So, this movie is not about a giant moth, but what is it about? That's a little hard to say. The film is a bit incoherent and mysterious, answering some of its riddles in too much detail and leaving others obscure. It's a pleasant and enjoyable Hollywood product but is hardly an overlooked classic. Unlike a lot of other movies, this one picks up a lot of momentum in its middle 45 minutes, with its beginning and ending bookends lacking momentum and narrative drive. The screenplay is silly, with a lot of cliched lines of dialogue (the newspaper editor actually calls Gere's journalist character his "star reporter"), but there are plenty of effective moments, too, and unlike a lot of mainstream Hollywood films of the past 13 years, it takes its time telling a story without feeling the need to constantly bash the viewer in the face with action and information. It feels like a throwback to the not-terrible/not-great late-1980s/early-1990s supernatural thrillers I frequently watched on VHS in the first couple years of high school (Flatliners, Jacob's Ladder, The First Power, Angel Heart) that were very slick and professional but also creepy, character-based, and relaxed in pace without being particularly distinguished or distinctive. That's my unsatisfying recommendation to you -- The Mothman Prophecies: It's better than something that sucks but not as good as something that is good. I bet you're already in your car on the way to the video store or online reordering your Netflix queue as I finish typing this sentence.
The film begins with Washington Post reporter John Klein (Richard Gere) rushing off to join his wife Mary (Debra Messing) as they put the final bid in on their dream home. On their drive back to the old place, Mary sees something strange, loses control of the car, and crashes it. She survives the crash, but a CAT scan reveals a rare cancerous brain tumor. Messing's character soon dies, to my, well, not delight, really, so let's call it lack of disappointment. (I don't hate her as an actress. I just find her incredibly boring.) As John collects her things at the hospital, he finds a notebook with bizarre drawings of a mothlike creature. Fast forward two years. John is still working for the Post and hits the road late one sleepless night for his following day's interview with a politician. His car breaks down, and he walks over to a nearby home for help. Then a bunch of really weird things happen, and he is soon teaming up with a local policewoman, Connie Mills (Laura Linney), to try to figure it out.
Gere acquits himself nicely, making a believable character out of a thinly written part. Linney, usually reliable, has a losing wrestling match with her bizarre take on a Midwestern accent, which is equal parts movie Southern accent, high school play Depression-era farmer, and real-life Northeasterner. Director Mark Pellington gets some striking images (I particularly liked the shots of the motel's neon sign and the car headlights shining up from the river water after a bridge collapse) and keeps the distracting faux-arty tics to a minimum, but, as is all too common for directors who started in music videos, his images and transitions between shots seem disconnected from each other. There is a lack of continuity and flow in the camera placement and framing in some of the juxtapositions of shots.
Pellington's had a long career in music videos, shooting famous clips for Public Enemy, Pearl Jam, U2, Anthrax, Alice in Chains, INXS, Nine Inch Nails, Bruce Springsteen, Flaming Lips, Foo Fighters, Band of Horses, and Michael Jackson. His feature films haven't been as successful, but he produces and often directs the hit TV show Cold Case, which I find unwatchable, though I find most current non-pay cable network dramas unwatchable thanks to a current fashion for hideously ugly color palettes, lack of spatial coherence, ridiculously incompetent and showoffy stylistic tics, average shot lengths of barely half a second, generic writing, and bland acting. The Mothman Prophecies is far more watchable than Cold Case, and there is some genuinely earned suspense in it. Unfortunately, for the second time in a row on this site, I had to write a lukewarm review. And both films were from 2002. Come on, 2002. You can step it up.

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