Movie Rehab: Harrison Ford goes mad in the jungle in Peter Weir’s ‘Mosquito Coast’

It is the responsibility of the working film critic to not only offer opinion and context for the newest releases, but also to constantly champion and curate the films that matter, especially if they were misunderstood or poorly released or somehow handled badly the first time around.

Critics should take it upon themselves to rehabilitate the under-loved, to defend the wrongly-maligned, and rehab the films that need it; it is the only way film as a whole can be healthy.

It does not escape me that many of Peter Weir’s best films were adapted from novels. In the case of “The Mosquito Coast,” it’s a Paul Schrader adaptation of a Paul Theroux novel, and Schrader may have been the exact right person to try to wrestle that material up onto the screen.

After all, Schrader was the creator of Travis Bickle, whose monologues sound something like a less articulate, more desperate version of Allie Fox, and Schrader grew up as an outsider to mainstream culture, something that has informed much of his work over the years. When he looks at the commercialization and the sexualization and the nonstop sensory overload of pop entertainment, he sees it as someone who grew up with no movies, no TV, no real input like that. He views with with a detachment, and that allows him to fully experience what it is that characters like Travis and Allie or George C. Scott’s desperate father in “Hardcore” feel as they drown in the seedy, awful world.

The film opens with Allie Fox already cranked up to high gear. He’s fed up. He is repulsed by the America of the mid-’80s. He is tired of seeing Japanese products in American stores. He is xenophobic, but more than that, he’s misanthropic. He does not care for people in general. It’s not an uncommon position for very smart people, and Paul Theroux’s work seems to run in this direction, anyway. He has created a number of main characters who are deeply critical of particular parts of modern society. Allie Fox is a brilliant man in many regards, and one of the things Weir does a strong job of underlining at the start of the film is how, despite the sort of non-stop simmering anger that is part of Allie’s ongoing monologue about the world, his family loves and respects his genius.

When he demonstrates his invention for his employer, he’s justifiably proud of himself, but Mr. Polski (Dick O’Neill) is beyond frustrated with him. He sees how genuinely great Fox’s work is, but that doesn’t matter. It’s not what he hired him for, and he chews Allie out in front of his kids. The way Ford plays the reaction as he gets in the car is important. He masks the hurt and the rejection. “What would have happened if he’d liked it?” he asks his sons Charlie (River Phoenix) and Jerry (Jadrien Steele) as they get in the truck to leave. “Then I really would’ve been worried. Then I’d have gone back to bed.” But he’s hurt deeply, and we can see it.

One of my favorite things about this as a Harrison Ford performance is that it lets him talk to a degree that almost no other film has ever let him talk. Allie Fox is a man who likes the sound of his own voice, and who believes that his every thought is a profound gem to be turned over to his children. When he talks to Charlie and Jerry about the jungle where the migrant workers on Polski’s asparagus fields came from, he talks about it as a paradise, a place where his ability to create ice would be valued, treated as something wonderful and special. It is a fantasy that he’s describing, not based on any real practical knowledge of what life in the jungle would be like. Allie Fox talks a big game. He’s like a lot of people, full of theories that he espouses as facts and he’s just right enough about things, justified to just enough of a degree that he’s a menace. When he takes his kids by the “monkey house,” he tells his kids that they shouldn’t indulge any racist talk about the migrant workers, but his brazen behavior, walking into their house so he can lecture his kids about it, is insulting at the very least, and more likely as racist as any overt act of hatred. Allie is a fairly condescending person, something that many hyper-liberals are guilty of as well. Actually, it’s true of anyone who’s an extremist, whether right or left. It’s that feeling that you’re absolutely right about something that makes you come across as an insufferable prick.

Weir tells the story from Charlie’s point of view, and there are scenes where the world of adults is something mysterious, consisting of conversations behind closed doors and swirls of smoke and noise and men with drinks in their hands and laughter at things you don’t understand. When Allie makes the decision to make good on his talk of leaving America behind, it’s an adventure. It’s presented as this exciting and weird thing, and there’s one moment in particular as they’re leaving when Mother Fox (Helen Mirren) looks at the dishes in the sink, still steaming from just being washed, and she smiles. She has no idea what they’re about to do, what they’re going to go through. She’s just happy because Allie’s happy and he’s determined and he seems like he’s got a plan.

The passage down to Mesquitia on the boat sets up one of the key relationships in the film, the antagonistic clash between Allie Fox and Reverend Spellgood (Andre Gregory). Allie loves to poke at the Reverend. He knows the Bible well, and whenever he senses the Reverend warming up to share some homily, he deflates him as quickly and as pointedly as he can. The Reverend’s daughter Emily is played by Martha Plimpton, and she and Phoenix are very funny in their scenes together. She’s nothing if not direct in their first long conversation. She builds to finally asking him if he has a girlfriend, pleased by his irritated response. Her timing is deadly as she gets up to walk away, big smile on her face. “I can be your girlfriend. If you want. I think about you when I go to the bathroom.” God bless Martha Plimpton, who loves knowing she’s flustered him, and his reaction is solid gold teenaged befuddlement.

Weir drives home the presence of the missionaries as something that particularly perturbs Allie. His plan is very loose, basically one step at a time. It’s not until they’re in Mesquitia that he really works out where they’re going, what part of the jungle is going to be theirs. He buys a town called Geronimo. Mr. Haddy (Conrad Roberts) is the boat captain who takes them up the river to Geronimo, and he’s part of that adventure. It’s gorgeous and green and remote, and Maurice Jarre’s score is one of the things that I wish had gotten more attention when the film came out. He’s the composer of the score for my favorite film, “Lawrence Of Arabia,” and that film’s score captures the sweeping military drive of the main character, of the situation itself. Here, Jarre’s score is liquid, languid, something to melt into, at least in these early sequences of the trip to Geronimo. This was his  third film in a row with Weir, and none of his scores sound like the other between this and “Witness” and “The Year Of Living Dangerously.” Likewise, John Seale was still relatively early in his career at this point. He’d worked on a few films of note, like “Witness” and “Children Of A Lesser God” and “The Hitcher” and “BMX Bandits,” and a film like “The Mosquito Coast” must have seemed like nothing but opportunity, pure bliss. It’s hard to find a bad shot when you’re shooting in the jungle.

The first time the family is worried is when they actually get to Geronimo and they realize Allie’s serious, that they’re going to have to carve what they want out of this untamed wild. The level of togetherness they share in those early days, all of them in the same tent, that’s something that would test any family, and they seem like they do well with it at first. Allie’s happier, excited, and they all take their cues from him. He sets the emotional temperature for everyone else. There are locals who go to work for Allie, people who were already living on the land known as Geronimo. “This was work and more work, a routine that took up every daylight hour.” Allie’s driven, and so everyone else becomes driven. He’s great in that role. He’s charismatic and capable, and everyone else falls in as he commands. His rants as he works are manic, excited. I’m guessing Allie Fox would be diagnosed as bi-polar now, and when he’s in an upswing, it’s little wonder everyone wants to follow. He’s so compelling. I belly laugh at the scene where he’s ranting at a local kid even as he’s using his chainsaw to cut away part of a tree, and when he shuts off the saw, it’s the first time we hear, and it’s the very tail end of the rant. “… double-digit inflation and a two-dollar loaf of bread!” is all we hear, and Allie seems satisfied he just made his point. In the next scene, he does it again with a welding torch.

Little by little, Allie really does improve Geronimo. and when Reverend Spellgood shows up in the camp, Allie seems him as an invading enemy. He is openly contemptuous to the Reverend, and it’s clear that he sees the Reverend as a threat to his own authority. More importantly, the Reverend sees Allie’s message of self-sufficiency as a threat to his own work. It’s much harder to convince someone who’s happy and satisfied that they need God to fix their problems. It feels like Allie wins over the people of Geronimo, and for good reason. The town he builds is lovely, with some modern convenience, but in harmony with the land itself. He doesn’t clear out the jungle to build. Instead, he builds into it, around it, using it. Everything up through the first Thanksgiving they celebrate in their new home makes it feel like Allie has made the right choice, and there’s a giddiness to many of the scenes, an excitement at what this family is going through together.

“Father was restless. Everything was too easy now, and the locals were taking his ice for granted.” That line pretty much sums up what goes wrong in the film. Allie is never content, and his intelligence often comes across as cruelty, especially when dealing with his kids. He can’t let something go once he starts, and in one scene, a simple question about where they’re going to sleep leads to a near total evisceration of his younger son, Jerry. Allie wants to take his miraculous ice deeper into the jungle to a tribe that has had almost no exposure to the outside world, and it’s hard not to see a sort of egomania driving his decision. If he hadn’t insisted on contacting the tribe, he wouldn’t have encountered the three fugitives who are hiding with the tribe, and they wouldn’t have insisted on following him back to Geronimo. His hubris is what eventually causes his Paradise to fall, and the worst part is just how naive he is about the baser motives in people.

Once the guys show up at Geronimo, Allie’s dream starts to crumble, and there’s nothing sadder than watching him destroy their carefully-constructed homes and everything else they’ve built, all to service the story he creates about ants and termites, all to drive the armed men away. They finally take refuge in the one thing he won’t tear down, his full-scale Fatboy ice machine. The notion of Allie having to use his creation as a weapon is enough to finally break him. He built the Fatboy to bring civilization to Geronimo, and instead, he uses it to kill three people, leading to its destruction. Once it’s been perverted like that, Allie’s never the same, and his recklessness takes center stage. There’s a shot of his face as Fatboy explodes that is terribly sad and scary, and as the world is swallowed by flame, all he can do is watch, knowing he’s the reason.

Here’s what I find most haunting about not only the film, but the reaction to the film. When Harrison Ford and Peter Weir got together to make this, they were coming off of “Witness,” a commercial and critical high point for both of them. The film earned Ford what is still his only Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and “The Mosquito Coast” offered them a perfect vehicle to follow that up. When the film was roundly rejected, both at the box-office and by the end-of-the-year rodeo, my theory is that Harrison Ford gave up. Sure, he kept making movies after that, but it felt like he stopped pushing himself. He retreated into his comfort zone as a performer, and he started giving interviews where he described himself as a “carpenter,” simply building tables for his “customers.” He talked about giving crowds what they wanted, and he seemed more disconnected from his art after that. He tried, and he was slapped down for it, and then he stopped trying.

Allie’s refusal to go back to the US after the burning of Geronimo is tantamount to child abuse, and the last half-hour of the film charts the slow dissolution of his family. The kids know something is wrong with their father, and Mother knows Allie’s wrong, but they continue to try to support him. Allie pushes harder and harder to disconnect themselves from having to rely on anyone else for anything. Their world keeps getting smaller and smaller, and even when Mr. Haddy tries to help Allie, Allie pushes him away. His pride is a damnable thing, and his ruin in the end. When he tells his own son to get out simply for voicing a disagreement, it’s obvious that there’s no turning back, no way for Allie to salvage his pride and do the right thing by his family. Charlie has to step up and become the hero for their family, and watching Phoenix in the last half-hour of this film, I was struck anew by just how much he could convey at such a young age, by what an expressive talent he was overall.

The worse things get, the happier Allie seems to be. It’s a defense mechanism, and it’s heartbreaking. I know that with my own kids, they internalize much of my world view as their own. They look up to me, and they trust me innately. I used to joke about how I wanted to be like Calvin’s dad from “Calvin & Hobbes,” gleefully lying about everything, but when I actually started dealing with my kids, I was overwhelmed by the responsibility that comes from having someone put their full faith in you. At its heart, “The Mosquito Coast” is really about a young man having to realize that his father is not the compass he can follow through this world, and just how heartbreaking that is for him. Having Harrison Ford follow up his iconic roles as Indiana Jones and Han Solo to play his part was subversive genius, because it felt like a violation for viewers like me. We had come to believe that Ford was our superhero, our generation’s most trustworthy action star, and watching him slowly lose his mind, putting his family in harm’s way, watching his own children turn against him… it was heartbreaking. That may well explain why audiences rejected it, but I would contend that it is the single greatest performance Ford has given, and in many ways, this is the demarcation point between the Ford who seemed capable of anything and the Ford who seemed uninterested in everything. If people had embraced the film, who knows what his filmography would look like today?

The film is not currently available, and the last DVD that was released was a lousy full-frame edition. The film deserved better in 1986. It deserves better now. “The Mosquito Coast” is an all-timer, and I would love to see people finally come back around to appreciate just what a special accomplishment it truly is.

MOVIE REHAB: “Gladiator”
MOVIE REHAB: “Fearless”
MOVIE REHAB: “Casualties Of War”

When we return, the next film will be Carl Reiner’s 1983 ‘The Man With Two Brains”