The Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) for March has never received enough attention for my satisfaction. Few critics championed The Mosquito Coast when it was released at Thanksgiving in 1986, and its poor box-office showing led to a quick trip to the shelves of your local video store. (I bet it was one of the last to be converted to DVD, too.) Too bad, because it's an underappreciated movie, a profound story, and an important notch on the career belts of its cast members.
Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and last year's The Walker) adapted Paul Theroux's 1982 novel of the same name, but critics predictably pounced on the effort. "Most of its contents are still there, but they have no particular cumulative impact," said the NYT's Vincent Canby. I haven't read the book, but the screenplay worked quite well for me. I have to say, I don't think it's entirely unfair for critics to always compare a movie and its original source, but it would be nice if they would focus on the movie when they're focusing on the movie. Last year's The Kite Runner, a great film on its own, was never given a fair chance by critics because of the ridiculous expectations that accompanied it. I digress. The criticisms of The Mosquito Coast weren't just about the adaptation anyway. Roger Ebert called it "the type of bore [that] you will not tolerate," the Washington Post had two (?) critics rip it (Rita Kempley and Paul Attanasio), and TIME's Richard Schickel simply asked, "How does a director of Peter Weir's caliber make a miscalculation of this magnitude?"
Fine, it's not a classic, but there's still much to appreciate about this "compelling little movie." For starters, it's an intriguing story: Allie Fox is an unappreciated inventor and an intensely patriotic American - so much so that if he can't live in his America, he's not going to live in any America. Most of us would hop over to Canada, but Fox is not the type to ease into anything, and he wants to get as far away from American culture as possible:
"We eat when we're not hungry, drink when we're not thirsty. We buy what we don't need and throw away everything that's useful. Why sell a man what he wants? Sell him what he doesn't need. Pretend he's got eight legs and two stomachs and money to burn. It's wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. "
Packing up his wife and two kids, the increasingly unpredictable Fox moves his stead to the jungles of the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. He hires some locals and creates an impressive, self-sufficient compound on a river that even includes an ice factory ("Fat Boy"). The family lives comfortably for a short time, but Fox, who now has a God complex, is tragically unprepared for the circumstances - a rising water level, armed bandits and an intrusive missionary. As his family begins to turn on him and his creation is destroyed in various ways, Fox loses control on the way to his tragic end. Paradise Lost.
In addition to this rich narrative, The Mosquito Coast features beautiful cinematography (it was filmed in Belize), a well-suited score, and searing performances. It's no wonder Harrison Ford considers this his favorite film - he's never played a character as dark as Allie Fox. Having rolled out three Star Wars and two Indiana Jones in the nine years before this, he was probably desperate for a "real" character. A year earlier he received his first (and last!) Oscar nomination for Witness, but in my opinion he doesn't carry that film as well as he does The Mosquito Coast.
Of course, his supporting cast here would be the envy of most actors: future Oscar-winner Helen Mirren (The Queen) and the tragically promising River Phoenix, who earlier that year had also starred in Stand By Me. Two years later he would receive an Oscar nod for Running on Empty. The next year, 1989, he would be chosen by Ford to play a young Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He last wowed critics in 1991's My Private Idaho, and in 1994, just 8 years after The Mosquito Coast, he was dead of a drug overdose. Young actors are often venerated after untimely deaths, but Phoenix, like Heath Ledger, was truly a unique talent.
And what of director Peter Weir? The year prior he had directed Ford in Witness, earning him his first of four Oscar nominations for Best Director (Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). He has not directed anything since 2003 (Commander) and neither of his next two projects sound promising to me. Ford, in the meantime, is busy again with Indy after several misfires in a row (Hollywood Homicide, K-19: The Widowmaker, Firewall). Unfortunately, it seems he never found another role like Allie Fox, which some still consider his best-ever performance.
As I've already conceded, The Mosquito Coast doesn't deserve a place on the shelf of Hollywood classics. This trailer is ridiculous (they all were in the 80's) and completely misleading, and the film probably doesn't match the poignancy of the book. However, if you can look past that and appreciate its many positive aspects, you'll find an interesting character study and thought-provoking lessons on religion, family, and the American Dream.