The Mothman Prophecies

| January 30, 2002

In Arlington Road, director Mark Pellington’s first movie, Jeff Bridges’ character was driven to the edge by suspicions about his neighbors. He alienated his friends through his paranoia and brought himself to the brink of a nervous breakdown, only to have his supposedly irrational fears realized in the final moments of the film. In Pellington’s The Mothman Prophecies, everybody seems crazy when discussing the odd occurrences plaguing the town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, but as the film soon reveals, nobody really is– except anyone who believes this crap.
The supernatural incidents in the story are “based on real events,” and in attempting to support the sketchy reality of the Mothman, Pellington sacrifices any psychological complexity the story might have had in favor of a sense of dread that is soon undermined by a lack of ambiguity. Rather than present ambivalence about the creature’s existence, Pellington chooses to present the Mothman as real and keep only its motivations a mystery.
Richard Gere plays a reporter for the Washington Post whose wife dies after a bad car crash, which leads to the discovery that she has a fatal brain tumor. During the accident, she caught a glimpse of some terrifying apparition, and her resulting sketches of the figure start the mystery. A few years later, still shelled by grief, Gere heads to Richmond to interview a local politician, but instead of making it there, his car breaks down in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, and then the trouble begins. When he walks to a nearby house to use the phone, he is dragged inside and held at gunpoint by the house’s owner, a crazed man (Will Patton) convinced that Gere has been coming to his house at the same time for the last three nights. This makes no sense to Gere, nor does it that the town he is in is some six hundred away from where he started out, and that it took him only a few hours to drive that distance.
If this sounds like the X-Files, that’s okay, because it plays a lot like it too. And perhaps that is the film’s major mistake. Like the X-Files, there is little doubt shown that the supernatural exists and is at work, so rather than play with the audience’s perception of the truth, we are faced with waiting until an explanation is proffered. That’s kind of how The Mothman Prophecies works. Pellington is not interested in ambiguity about the Mothman’s existence, as evidenced by his constant use of point-of-view shots where his camera stands in as some unseen entity watching the characters from offscreen. For much of the film, the camera is the Mothman. That is, until the Mothman becomes a character.
Halfway through the movie, Gere enlists the help of the local sheriff (Laura Linney), and the two of them talk to the witnesses of the strange events that have been occurring in town. Listed amongst the oddities are strange phone calls, nighttime glimpses of eight-foot tall creatures, bystanders afflicted with swollen eyes after glimpsing the Mothman, etc. The sheriff remains skeptical, but Gere continues to claw for answers, trying to reconcile his grief over his wife’s death with the supernatural incidents he feels are connected to it. By the time one character is having conversations with the Mothman (and getting prophetic warnings from it) the movie has left any sense of credibility behind and jumped headfirst into a sticky morass of fate, metaphysics and supernatural mumbo-jumbo.
Gere can’t let go of the investigation and the Mothman delights in toying with him, even deigning to call the reporter on the phone and display some powerful psychic ability. Alan Bates appears as an expert on the Mothman and adds nothing but a sense of absurdity (there’s an expert?) with his burnt-out warnings to Gere that there is no sense in trying to decipher the situation. He says it’s a metaphysical reality that humans are not meant to comprehend. Great, thanks for the help. Unfortunately, Pellington agrees with that assessment and the rest of the movie follows along, providing little satisfactory explanation for the events that occur.
There are some creepy moments, mostly early on; Pellington at least has a handle on creating moody anxiety. But as soon as the explanations start flying and the Mothman gains a first name, the movie has lost control. Gere is eventually saved from his obsession by Linney’s attention, but nothing, it seems, can save humanity from the Mothman’s predictions. Everything in the movie is taken so seriously that it’s laughable. In Arlington Road, Pellington used an unreliable main character to keep us off-guard until the end. In this movie, the reality of the supernatural is never questioned, and is continually supported, so that when the essentially predictable finale kicks in, it is redundant and pointless. Gere’s smug persona makes him incapable of credibly handling some of the material (there is one breakdown scene that nearly left me in tears… from laughter), and Linney is left with little to do in her empty role as the backwoods sheriff. Pellington has some skills, and he certainly keeps the suspense up, but the story ultimately unravels from its own absurdity and earnest attempts to provoke speculation about realms of existence beyond our own — presumably places where ChapStick is in abundance.

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