It is difficult to ascertain the place The Mosquito Coast holds in Peter Weir’s career. It’s not as universally admired as Witness or Dead Poets Society, but has its defenders. When it came out it received mixed reviews and met financial failure. But Harrison Ford later said it had his favourite performance. The writing, which I think has always been the main quality of Weir’s movies, isn’t perfect here, and the main character can seem unlikeable. But the movie, the moment it starts showing the tensions that arise from different worlds coming into contact, is vintage Peter Weir.
Based on a novel by Paul Theroux, the movie follows Allie Fox (Harrison Ford), an inventor who believes America has failed to live up to its values. He sees his beloved country as a victim of the welfare state, of foreign investment, of big corporations and of lack of ambition. Ambition and determination, however, are two things he has in spades. Love it or leave it, and Allie leaves with his family to Mosquitia, a fictional South American country. There he buys a town in the middle of the jungle and starts building the foundations of a new civilisation. His belief is that his ultimate invention, a machine that uses fire to create ice, will allow him to turn that piece of land into an earthly paradise.
The Mosquito Coast is not Heart of Darkness; it’s not even Apocalypse Now, in spite of the similarities. This movie is not about losing one’s mind in the middle of the jungle, of crossing the limits of decency when one is not restrained by laws and mores. Allie is a pretty nice guy throughout the movie – a loving husband and father, an untiring worker, a fair leader of his community. Bringing technical improvement and comfort to a decadent town, he soon becomes admired and respected. And besides, he’s already a bit crazy before coming to the jungle.
Although Ford’s performance seems exaggerated at times, it has an honesty and conviction that make Allie’s occasional antics credible. And if in 1986 he just sounded like a capitalism-hating commie, his belief that the world exists to be perfected through imagination and hard work sounds quite sensible today now that we’ve realised we’re slowly killing the planet and ourselves with it.
But for some an imperfect world is perfect for business. Sharing the jungle with Allie are Christian missionaries, offering promises of a celestial paradise to compensate for all the hardships on earth. Hard work is unnecessary; faith suffices. Needless to say this doesn’t sit well with Allie. And in Mosquitia also lurk mercenaries, amoral men ready to exploit Allie’s community.
The movie is narrated by Allie’s son Charlie (played by River Phoenix). Although Phoenix’s performance is solid, the voice over is redundant and should have stayed in the novel. Weir has always been excellent at visual storytelling and one can’t help thinking that Charlie is only narrating the movie to make it easier for the audiences to know how to feel about the protagonist. Charlie describes the admiration, and later fear and anger, he feels for his father, but Phoenix’s own body language does a good job of showing this.
Helen Mirren, failing horribly at an American accent, gives a nevertheless fine performance as Allie’s wife. Composer Maurice Jarre, famous for his collaborations with director David Lean, composes one of his most ethereal scores for this movie, bringing a very strange sense of serenity to it. And Weir’s camera work is amazing as usual, equally at ease in the suburbs and in the middle of the jungle, capturing nature in all its beauty and menace. Although it’s not one of Peter Weir’s best movies, twenty-four years later The Mosquito Coast still holds some pleasures for viewers.
Director: Peter Weird
Cast: Harrison Ford, River Phoenix, Helen Mirren
Runtime: 117 min