At its heart, The Mist is an allegory; unfortunately, for at least the first two acts (i.e. most of the film), hyphenate Darabont makes the easy mistake of getting lost trying to find it, to the detriment of his characters’ development. Set in a small town, the film is populated by cardboard cutouts of your standard archetypes: the religious fundamentalist, the haughty fella from the city (black, natch), the reckless small-town simpleton, etc. etc. The drama is clunky—especially as Darabont has a bad habit of trying to score cheap pathos points by suddenly giving an ancillary character some depth and then killing them immediately thereafter (eg. James Whitmore’s character in Shawshank, Alexa Davalos here)—the acting wooden and/or cartoonish (Toby Jones, in a wonderfully natural performance, and William Sadler are the exceptions), the writing outrageously obvious and blandly blatant as characters spout the film’s Big Themes and debate pat philosophical matters.
But as characters die off and the survivors begin to act more as rival mobs than individuals, The Mist starts to come to life as it settles into its symbolism. The premise is simple, in an old-fashioned horror movie kind of way: after a nasty storm, a New England town (as the film is based on a Stephen King novella, it is of course set in Maine) is besieged by a mysterious fog, er, mist, that kills those who wander into it, trapping two dozen or so residents and tourists behind the vulnerable glass walls of a supermarket. What’s in the mist? Giant bugs—such as locusts the size of cats—and pterodactyls, for starters; essentially, The Mist is a battle between the prehistoric as it encroaches on modernity, a peculiar metaphor for the invasion of the backwards terrorists emerging from their caves to strike America. We even find out that the monsters are the result of an army experiment gone awry, that the mist attacking America is blowback from military malfeasance—just like 9/11. (Here, though, the threat—the mist—is literally “blowing back.”)
But, in the end, The Mist is less interested in how and why the town is being attacked than in the attack’s polarizing effects on its populace, the peril dividing the microcosmic community into opposing sides and turning many of them to a paranoid and angry form of religion. (Sound familiar?) Terror(ism) becomes the lesser threat as the loss of reason that follows the onslaught of religious fervor emerges as the true menace. As the tension becomes, increasingly, between our heroes, led by Thomas Jane, and their fellow man—and not between man and the menace “out there”—The Mist‘s intensity rises, building to a bleak and miserable finale as our small band of protagonists take their chances in the threatening unknown. Darabont doesn’t take sides with any of the pigheadedly certain parties in The Mist; it’s a celebration of level-headed agnosticism, easily read as both anti-science and anti-religion, anti-military and anti-civilian. There’s a twist ending following Jane doing something stupid that, taken with the conversion of the grocery store’s masses, serves as a warning to the audience: basically, disasters may cause a tragic loss of life, but it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. Instead, he suggests that maybe Americans, to their own detriment, have overreacted to what happened on September 11th, and maybe they ought to try and gather their wits before giving into their fear and doing something rash like, say, starting a war.