Are you a fan of The X Files, the infuriating, wilfully cryptic weekly joyride to the murky fringes of the zeitgeist? A lot of people still are1. I myself must confess to a certain fondness for the series even now, although I grew weary long ago of all the episodes about the main character's family (proof, perhaps, that Mulder's kin tires). Richard Hatem and Mark Ellington also seem to be fans - at least, so it seems from the new movie The Mothman Prophecies (which they respectively wrote and directed).
The film is supposedly 'based on true events' but (without boring you with the details) the words 'really', 'really' and 'loosely' appear to have been omitted from this claim. It's the tale of Washington DC reporter John Klein (Richard Gere, manfully trying to fend off the ravages of middle-age) whose blissful life with his implausibly young and bouffant wife Mary (Debra Messing) is shattered when she crashes their car one night after sighting a terrifying winged apparition (the titular Mothman). Medical tests reveal she has a serious illness. Two years later a still-haunted Klein finds himself drawn to the West Virginian town of Point Pleasant. He befriends local cop Connie (Laura Linney) and learns that this is a place where strange phenomena of all kinds are reported every day. Klein sets out to solve the mystery, to which he has a personal connection - but is the truth really out there? And, more importantly, will he get to do the dirty with his new ladyfriend?
Okay, so the plot is pure X Files but the movie's taken to another level by Pellington's brooding, dreamlike, almost expressionist direction. At times this is the cinematic equivalent of having a bad trip while listening to a trance-dance compilation. There's only one real bona fide shock moment in the film but throughout the middle section, as Gere tries to uncover the truth regarding the Mothman, it's incredibly creepy and unsettling. This remarkably eerie atmosphere is the film's great triumph and the main reason for going to see it.
But having created a compelling mystery the movie unfortunately tries to explain and resolve it and here's where things start to go wrong. Alan Bates pops up briefly to do the requisite info-dump but unfortunately this is such a mixture of the banal and the pretentiously metaphysical that I half wish he hadn't bothered. It's fairly coherent but it's not as bold or as gripping an explanation as one would have hoped for.
Someone I wish had bothered a bit more is Richard Gere. He's not quite phoning his performance in but he's distinctly restrained and rather passive compared to the rest of the cast - most of whom are good in a low key way, particularly Linney and Will Patton (who plays a yokel who gets picked on by the Mothman). The best part of the film is the middle, investigative section, and here his passiveness isn't a problem as he's mostly reacting to what other characters are telling him. But near its end the film changes pace and becomes much more the story of Gere's emotional journey and his response to the events he's caught up in, and his - let's be kind - rather static acting technique isn't helpful in making you care about or believe in him. That's one big problem. Another is that the climax proper, for all that it's centred on a technically superb set piece, is fairly predictable. It also dispenses entirely with the earlier creeping weirdness in favour of sentimentality and at times seems to belong to entirely different film.
It's obvious that The Mothman Prophecies is an attempt to emulate the style and success of M Night Shyamalan, writer-director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (indeed, the inexplicably alarming trailer for his next film, Signs, ran before this one). Pellington's movie isn't in the same league as Shyamalan's work, but even M Night Shyamalan-lite is a step up from your typical Hollywood thriller or horror film (the very fact that this film's so difficult to categorise is telling). I enjoyed it a lot, even if the ultimate destination didn't live up to the promise of the journey.
Before closing, just a quick plug for the h2g2 Fantasy Film League which DoctorGonzo has kindly organised. You too can unscrupulously pick up supporting actors from dead-cert blockbusters at dirt-cheap prices! 'Play' starts at the beginning of next month, so hurry, hurry, hurry.