| Michael Wellvang |
The Mosquito Coast plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, September 22nd, through Sunday, September 24th. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.
There’s something about shopping that makes middle-aged men snap. Maybe it goes against the whole hunter-gatherer thing where men kill and women do everything else. There’s nothing to hunt for in a store. Going shopping implies you don’t already possess the tools you need (and what real man isn’t self-reliant?) so there you are, in public, exposed, accosted by strangers taunting you with questions such as “need any help?”
Of course not, damnnit. I’m a man!
Mosquito Coast opens on such an occasion, where Allie Fox (Harrison Ford) and his son Charlie (River Phoenix) take a trip to the hardware store. It doesn’t go well. Allie rants about globalism and Japan to the cashier, played by a young Jason Alexander. Incidentally, this is a very Seinfeld thing to happen.
Allie is not the only on-screen middle-aged, middle-class white man to take out his crisis over the remembrance of East Asians’ existence on planet Earth on a cashier. The 1992 film Falling Down also comes to mind. Here, Michael Douglas’s character, credited only as “D-Fens,” begins his feature-length rampage in a Koreatown grocery store.
In more ways than one, Falling Down is the companion piece to Mosquito Coast. Both follow middle-class white men who, as D-Fens puts it, “did everything they told me to.” Meaning, they got the house, the job, the wife, and the kids. And then something terrible happened.
These plot lines (dubbed “trouble in paradise” by screenwriters) are hardly unique. However, if we focus on the setting (a society in decline) and the sort of protagonist in these two films (the white, reasonably successful, American family man who does something drastic), a subgenre begins to emerge.
This subgenre is distinct from other gritty dramas about white men who struggle with modern life in America (such as Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, Fight Club, or Nightcrawler) in that those protagonists aren’t—or ever were—archetypes for male success, unlike Allie Fox. They’re antisocial, most don’t have white-collar jobs, none have families, and all are afflicted by serious mental illness. While Allie and D-Fens are by no means perfect, their respective turmoil in Mosquito Coast and Falling Down is caused by their adherence to a set of values that are no longer shared by society.
I call this subgenre…
“We used to be a proper country”
“We used to be a proper country” has its origins in the 1974 film Death Wish, which stars Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, a Manhattan architect-turned-vigilante after his daughter is assaulted and his wife murdered. Against the backdrop of a city in the midst of a crime wave, he alone makes a stand.
The premise is rather absurd. Bronson’s character runs around killing teenagers and we’re supposed to believe the Mayor, the Attorney General, and Walter Cronkite are all on board with this. Jeff Goldblum plays the rapist, by the way.
Death Wish struck a chord with the American public. Roger Ebert awarded it three stars, calling the film a “quasi-fascist advertisement.” The film had four sequels. The last one premiered in 1994, two years after Falling Down.
Signatures of the subgenre:
- Contempt for urban areas.
- The protagonist, who is not violent, turns to violence.
- Stores, or the act of shopping, are depicted in a negative light.
- There are “savages”—a term Allie uses in Mosquito Coast. They are the lower classes, and their role is primarily to be on the receiving end of the protagonist’s actions. In the protagonist’s eyes, they lack the knowledge or values he possesses.
- American symbols are shown in a tarnished or perverted manner, as seen below:
More importantly, the subgenre explores the question…
“Why would a white guy do this?”
This is just a throwaway line in Falling Down, spoken by a police officer after reports come in that a man in a white shirt and tie—Michael Douglas’s character—was on a rampage in “gangland” territory. But “Why would a white guy do this?” very much is the question at the heart of the subgenre.
The answer is relatively clear for both Death Wish and Falling Down: revenge, alienation, as well as racism and classism, or some combination thereof. But while Allie Fox possesses some of those traits in Mosquito Coast, he’s not necessarily motivated by them. To understand, we must go through the film’s events:
In the hardware store, Allie is indeed feeling alienated. He’s upset with the consumerist society laid bare on the shelves before him. The economy is evolving in ways he doesn’t approve, but in that moment, he doesn’t propose an alternative. Allie just doesn’t like the idea of “American dollars being converted into yen.” There is racism at play here, but he’s not about to blow up his life over prejudice. It’s more that Allie is offended that he’s forced to be at the store in the first place.
Through his son’s narration and various conversations, we loosely piece together that Allie, as an inventor, wants to help people improve their lives. But these inventions, and the people who use them, “become part of the problem” in American society, Allie says at one point. Again, what exactly that problem is, and his specific issues with it, are vague. Something about a “two-dollar loaf of bread.”
Following the hardware store outing, we meet an asparagus farmer who wants an HVAC system for his greenhouse. Instead, Allie shows up with a prototype for a new kind of refrigeration machine. A genius invention, the farmer admits—but it’s clear Allie has completely ignored the farmer’s needs. What a savage, Allie feels—how can this caveman not see the light? The farmer gives us a foreshadowing quote: “Your father is the most dangerous man. The one who thinks he’s always right, and sometimes is.”
In response, Allie moves his family to greener pastures somewhere along the Nicaraguan coast (a region whose name, La Mosquitia gives the film its namesake) where, apparently, people aren’t so set in their ways.
The move to La Mosquitia highlights a defining characteristic of protagonists in the subgenre: deep down, they believe that hardship is not something they, as the archetypes of male success, should experience, let alone accept.
Initially, Allie achieves what he sets out to do. After speaking with a particularly horrendous-looking expat whose lines we do not hear, Allie “buys” a town, aptly named “Jeronimo.” He builds his refrigeration contraption, as well as an efficient compound, with an unending amount of free labor from locals who collectively have as much dialog as your average video game NPC.
The residents of Jeronimo do whatever Allie says. One such task includes carrying ice into the jungle so that he can wow the native peoples who live in seclusion. Predictably, the endeavor fails.
But let’s say it hadn’t. “They’d think it was some sort of jewel,” Allie wistfully says, dreaming of the encounter early on in the film.
Yeah, I doubt that. They’d react just as the farmer did to the contraption: acknowledging its novelty, for sure, while concluding that its application would upset the system in place. Who would oversee that application—Allie? What would he want in return?
Why would a white guy do this?
Allie’s not an inventor. He’s a dictator without a nation. Allie left America because he wasn’t allowed to do absolutely whatever he wanted at all times, so he found someplace where he could. And when that fails, he goes berserk.
The compound is a ticking time bomb for when the inevitable will settle in—outsiders. At first, Allie, as God-Emperor of Jeronimo, is able to out-smite the priest’s attempt to proselytize its residents. But in his absence, the priest returns and leaves with half the townspeople.
Later, Allie’s faced with something else he can’t control: a physical threat. Gun-toting bandits come through, and, instead of seeking outside help (real men don’t ask for help), he hatches a harebrained scheme that burns down Jeronimo.
Mourning the loss of his refrigeration dictatorship, Allie cuts off contact with all outsiders except for his lieutenant, Mr. Haddy, and focuses on the last thing he can control: his family. He dismisses their calls to go back to America, stating it’s been destroyed by nuclear holocaust.
The nuclear moment is a quick one, but it’s pivotal. Allie can’t articulate why they shouldn’t go back to America because he’s never formed a cohesive set of reasons as to why they left in the first place. So he destroys America. Like any good dictator, he has to lie.
After their encampment is swept away by the tide, he turns to violence, waging his own nuclear war of sorts upon the mission. In the process, Allie gets shot by the priest.
Never bring a refrigerator to a gunfight.
My Final Thoughts
Old man-style complaints are an interesting phenomenon—they’re at once reasonable and intolerable.
“This costs too much, the service here sucks, people don’t have common sense anymore.”
What follows is the classic question, “What can you do?”
Mosquito Coast provides an answer: what can you—as a motivated, white middle-class family man with an overblown ego—really do? Allie has identified a problem, and therefore has a choice. He can either choose violence, as his parallels in Falling Down and Death Wish do, or he can attempt to find a solution.
Within the context of the film, Allie’s decision to leave the United States to set up a perceived better way of life is not necessarily his downfall; what does him in is his incapability to believe that others have anything to offer. Even when Jeronimo was at its peak, everyone was still dependent on his direction.
It’s worth noting that the source material’s author, Paul Theroux, was an early member of the Peace Corps in the 1960s, and later wrote on the failure of international aid programs in Africa. He felt, among other things, that they were too paternalistic.1
This dynamic is evident in Allie’s relationship with his lieutenant, Mr. Haddy, who is Black. Allie is happy to enlist Haddy’s help so long as Allie gets to drive the boat, both figuratively and literally. But when disaster strikes, Allie is unwilling to accept Haddy’s direction as an equal.
Allie can’t humble himself because doing so would require reassessing the system in place—the system that he, the white man, built. More specifically, Allie would have to accept that his values (which boil down to “everyone should live how I do”) don’t work in a modern context. But Allie won’t, so he calls Haddy a “savage,” and faces oblivion.
1 Theroux, Paul. Dark Star Safari. New York: Harper Collins, 2004. 120-152.
Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon