In many ways our Director Series on Peter Weir can be seen as an excuse to write about The Mosquito Coast, which is the logical culmination of the “early stage” of the director’s career and gateway to those brilliant films that would follow (though calling that Weir’s “later stage” makes it sound like his directing career is a slowly advancing disease). Coast would follow Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously – two well-received Australian films that helped launch Mel Gibson into superstardom – and Witness, which would prove to be Weir’s first American film. The greatness of Dead Poets Society would follow. It’s The Mosquito Coast, though, that’s arguably the most ambitious of any of these films.
And that’s fitting, because although Gibson’s Guy Hamilton and Harrison Ford’s John Book and Robin Williams’s John Keating could conceivably all be described as “ambitious” in one way or another, it’s Ford’s Allie Fox that allows his ambition to get the better of him. Fed up with just about every aspect of America, inventor Fox uproots everything and takes his family deep into the South American jungle. They make a new home – “home” a term used liberally here – on the Mosquito Coast, where Allie’s latest creation provides something magical for the local population: ice. Helen Mirren and River Phoenix appear as Allie’s wife and eldest son, who essentially allow themselves to be dragged into the jungle by this iceman simply because they love him.
The Mosquito Coast is based on the novel by Paul Theroux, and it’s without a doubt the most faithful adaptation of any of his works (the most cringeworthy is the feeble Half Moon Street, which has a great title and not much else). Theroux is a travel writer as much as he is a novelist, and his passion for both come out in Coast. Before we even consider the characters involved in the film, it’s worth noting that Weir taps into this hard-to-pin-down feeling of immersing yourself in a foreign place, an exotic culture, a feeling that Theroux knew well. It’s more and more rare that a film adaptation of a book will take such care with the recreation of the tone, instead focusing on the dialogue and the clothes the characters wear and the things they do.
So the fact that Allie Fox is a fascinating character on film is probably why Mosquito Coast plays so well today. Is he ridiculously obsessed? Yes. Is he racist? Yes. Is he content to endanger his family again and again? Yes. Is he actually wrong, though? Tough to say. It’s the endless circus of cheeseburgers and gaudy billboards and gas prices and 24/7 media coverage that’s gotten to Allie, and the fact that his methods are insane doesn’t often deaden the motive enough to the point where he’s entirely unlikable. He’s a kind of Tyler Durden a decade or so before Brad Pitt was Tyler Durden, trading fight clubs and Project Mayhem for an ice factory in the jungle – the kind of guy that forces you to think this guy is out of his mind, but damn if he doesn’t have a point.
Some have challenged Ford’s performance as over the top, and it is admittedly a much more manic Allie Fox than we see in Theroux’s novel. But this, to me, is the Allie Fox that The Mosquito Coast should have. Does he seem over the top? That’s because he very definitely is. He’s not a man who just complains about or argues against what America has become – he rages against it with everything he can muster, with every breath.
The trick, of course, is that Allie Fox is the ultimate American (right now I’m saying what the heck does that even mean?) and time and again embodies the very thing he rages against. “Everything we need is right here,” he says again and again (regardless of where they are, but the more wasteland-esque the better). River Phoenix’s Charlie admits through a voiceover only once Allie has passed: “Once I had believed in father, and the world had seemed small, and old. Now he was gone, and I wasn’t afraid to love him any more…and the world seemed limitless.” Allie Fox’s frame is an American one, and from his point of view (at this “starting gate” of culture) he is of course correct. He notes a difference and attributes it to a cultural identity – and he never actually leaves that gate. He’s stuck in his frame and, worse, he doesn’t (or can’t) realize it. “How the world works” has been drilled into his head for so long that any chance of considering another perspective is impossible. Impossible for Allie, that is – not for Charlie, thankfully, as he’s not yet such a creature of habit.
Allie himself might come to a realization in his final moments, saying “Nature is crooked…I wanted straight lines.” Maybe he can see his frame after all, and maybe it took his whirlwind coming to an end to bring about that clarity. The Mosquito Coast is extremely thought-provoking in this way: it’s not a “cerebral” mind-prodder, which could be described in straight lines, right angles, presented in a box with a note that says “interpret me”. The Mosquito Coast is more about a struggle to fit, presented not as a twisty-turny conundrum but simply as a portrait of a man named Allie Fox. The Mosquito Coast, like nature, is crooked.