Don’t see “The Mist.” I’m begging you.

4 09 2009

Lordy, that’s two hours of my life I want back. The ending of this film was one of the more egregious examples of irresponsible storytelling I’ve ever seen.

What is the purpose of storytelling? Responsible storytelling? The best stories, the ones that endure, are those that teach or reinforce universally held positive moral values. In the more effective stories, the storyteller keeps your left brain occupied with that plot stuff, while slipping a message to your right brain under the radar. The story might be funny, sad, scary, serious…but on some level, the ending is satisfying and life-affirming. The main character has learned something and grown as a result of the story’s journey (a comedy) or has significantly failed to learn something he needed to learn (a tragedy). We, the readers or viewers, have gained some insight on the human condition, even subliminally.

Then there are stories (and I use that term loosely here) that end by telling you that everything that came before doesn’t matter. Life is sh*t and then you die. Do good unto others and you get screwed. Or as a good friend of mine often said, “And then they all get hit by a truck, The End.” That is meaningless, wasteful, irresponsible storytelling. There’s no reason for it that I can figure, except for perhaps some hubristic, manipulative, condescending desire to flip the bird at one’s own audience. Which still makes no sense to me.

“The Mist” is irresponsible storytelling. The production values are great, the direction is skilled, the performances by some of my favorite character actors — Frances Sternhagen, Jeffrey DeMunn — are wonderful. The story (based on a novella by Stephen King) is creepy and terrifying and gripping. But all of it went right out the window as I sat through the last few minutes in slack-jawed shock. To describe myself as “unsatisfied” would be a vast understatement. I was furious. I was offended. I am a storyteller, and I would never, ever crap on my audience the way Frank Darabont, the writer/director, did with that terrible, terrible ending. If I’d had rotten vegetables on hand, I would have been throwing them.

I had not read the King novella, so I took a look at it. The ending is DIFFERENT. It is an ending that is structurally appropriate for the tone and subject of the story. There’s no cheap Deus Ex Machina, but I didn’t expect that. I expected our heroes’ horrific journey to have meaning. I needed a ray of hope, and King’s story gave me one. In Darabont’s train-wreck of an ending, there is no meaning. Life is sh*t and then you die, indeed.

What possesses a filmmaker to take a story and toss out its perfectly good ending, in favor of one that is designed to leave a viewer either depressed or furious? What is the purpose of sending a message like that? And while I’m ranting, what was King thinking when he let Darabont piss all over his satisfying ending? The mind boggles.

I will say that I got one thing out of this ghastly experience: how not to tell a story. Ever. It’s a lesson I already know, but one that can’t be reinforced enough.

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