The Mosquito Coast features what could very well be the most unlikable character ever portrayed on screen by Harrison Ford.
When I saw that Hoopla had a new-to-me Harrison Ford film in their catalog, I decided to give it a watch. After all, the film reteams Ford and filmmaker Peter Weir one year after they teamed up for Witness. This film is not even in the same league as Witness and it’s the main reason why the duo missed the Oscars that year. One of the few things the two films have in common is Ford pointing at somebody. In any event, River Phoenix’s casting as Ford’s son is what would lead to Ford recommending him for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Ford’s character, Allie Fox, is as far as it gets from Han Solo or Indiana Jones. Where those characters require Ford to perform stunt work, this one forces Ford into finding Allie Fox as a character and where he should play him from an emotional standpoint.
The critical reviews at the time forced Ford to defend the film with UPI Hollywood‘s Vernon Scott.
“I’m not defensive about the picture, but I want the public to hear another point of view. Critics see a film and then rush to review it. This is the sort of movie that really doesn’t sink home for about three days. It is disturbing and makes you think. It stays with you.”
Ford brings up a good point about critics rushing to review a film after they see it. This was back in 1986 when we didn’t have critics reviewing for online publications. Instead, they had to have their reviews ready by the time reviews were published in Friday’s paper. It is not much different today when you think about it. There are times when the embargo lifts less than 12 hours following a press screening. Unfortunately, there are also times where New York and Los Angeles film press get to see films well before the review embargo but studios make regional press see it after the review embargo lifts. For instance, regional press will see Oppenheimer pre-embargo but Barbie will be post-embargo. Unfortunately, both films are holding press screenings at the same time. But I digress.
Paul Schrader’s script adapts Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel for the screen. I haven’t read the novel but sheesh, I feel sorry for the Fox family. Allie Fox (Harrison Ford) is a stubborn mean who decides to take his family to Central America, thinking that America’s consumerism and greed will cause its destruction. Along the way to Belize, Allie gets into it with Reverend Spellgood (Andre Gregory) and his family. It is not much of a surprise but it really sets the tone up for things to come. Allie buys the village of Jeronimo and starts putting his plans of starting a utopian civilization into full gear. One thing leads to another and after their village is destroyed, they start making their way downstream towards the coast. Margot (Helen Mirren), Charlie (River Phoenix), and Jerry (Jadrien Steele) are not having any of it.
Spellgood thinks of Allie as a communist but he’s closer to being a full-on fascist. He builds a huge ice machine just to freeze three people to death. Not surprisingly, it backfires and destroys everything while polluting the river. Allie has blow-up after blow-up. Even when his family wants to go back home, he lies and tells them that America was destroyed in nuclear war. The fact that he turns on his family and then destroys Spellgood’s church really makes you wonder what is going on inside Allie’s brain.
In terms of characters, Ford’s Allie reminds me of Michael Mensana in Schrader’s First Reformed. Where Mensana is a radical environmentalist, Allie believes America to be on the verge of destruction. Even though Schrader didn’t write the source material of The Mosquito Coast, it’s something that came to mind while watching the film. The two characters have their differences, of course, but they are steadfast in their beliefs. One could only imagine what Fox would do if he ever encountered Ethan Hawke’s Pastor Ernst Toller. Judging by his thoughts on Reverend Spellgood, it probably would not be pretty.
This is a strong Harrison Ford performance in the sense that he’s playing an unlikeable character. It’s not easy for any actor but it comes with the territory. If I’m watching a movie starring Ford, I want to watch him play a character that I can root for. In this film, the only thing I am doing is rooting against the star. But hey, I far prefer Ford in this performance to his work in Sabrina. If not for an Oscar nomination one year prior, it’s possible that he could have received a nomination for his work in the film.
DIRECTOR: Peter Weir
SCREENWRITER: Paul Schrader
CAST: Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, River Phoenix, Conrad Roberts, and Andre Gregory, Martha Plimpton, and Dick O’Neill
Warner Bros. released The Mosquito Coast in theaters on November 26, 1986. Grade: 3.5/5
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