Cinema: Harrison's Heart of Darkness the Mosquito Coast

Directed by Peter Weir; Screenplay by Paul Schrader

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In real life Allie Fox's decision to leave the U.S., whose corruption and commercialism he noisily denounces every hour on the hour, would be greeted by sighs of relief by all who know him. Heading for Central America, are you, Allie? Upriver, you say? In the jungle? Well, good luck to you, boy. Send us a postcard if you get a chance.

Unfortunately, The Mosquito Coast (based on Paul Theroux's 1982 novel) is not a postcard. It is a movie, recording in painful detail the self-righteous Allie's trek toward a predictable tragedy, herding his long-suffering family before him as he goes. And though Harrison Ford offers a hypnotizing portrayal of a man covering despair with lunatic optimism, hysteria with bravado and rigid self-control, a fatal prejudice lingers in the audience: we do not want to spend a couple of hours with Allie here any more than we would if he were, heaven forfend, our next-door neighbor.

How does a director of Peter Weir's caliber make a miscalculation of this magnitude? One suspects that this passionate and meticulous Australian filmmaker was carried away by his own obsession. From his first success (Picnic at Hanging Rock) to his last (Witness), Weir has been at pains to dislocate rationality, placing representatives of Western "civilization" in primitive contexts, where their normal habits of mind and behavior can only mislead them. Doubtless he saw Allie as a bracing variant on his favorite sort of central figure. Perhaps Weir saw in this sacred monster the makings of dark comedy; Allie is a compendium of the cliches of liberaloid social criticism, rich in potential self-parody. For besides creating an Eden for his family, Allie has another, grander dream: the construction of a huge ice-making facility he has designed. Surely there is something funny about a man building an ice palace to serve a few hundred natives who have happily survived for centuries without it.

But nothing much is made of these possibilities. Nor are the several action sequences as potent as they might be. The assault on the family by jungle adventurers; the destruction by fire and explosion of the fragile civilization the family has so painstakingly made; the storm that imperils them in their last refuge; the mad attack by Allie on a missionary settlement -- all of these are well staged but lacking in resonance. The problem is that the high- pitched whine of Allie's character finally vitiates not merely the viewer's sympathy for him, but sympathy for the movie he dominates, despite the care and courage that went into its making.

It has happened before. Strong directors -- like John Boorman with The Emerald Forest and Roland Joffe with The Mission -- are drawn to shoot stories of strong men in death-defying jungle locations. They end up tracking their willful protagonists to death or madness, and the audience rarely follows. With all his art and effort, Weir is unable to enlist cogent concern for Allie Fox. One escapes from The Mosquito Coast as one might from a plague of the title insects, itching and irritable.