Layering sexy Hitchcockian paranoia over oddball tabloid hooey has been The X-Files‘ stock-in-trade for an eternity now, but its formula has yet to work in a feature film. The latest big-screen knockoff, Mark Pellington’s The Mothman Prophecies, is a disappointing simulacrum that also manages to ape The Silence of the Lambs‘ marketing campaign. It delivers some chills and sustained unease, but flounders in its quest for Deeper Meaning.
Richard Gere, who has expressed affection for the 1975 John A. Keel crackpot true-crime classic from which the movie is drawn, plays John Klein, a Washington Post reporter drawn to a haunted West Virginia burg after the unexpected death of his wife. Seems she had a pre-mortem vision of the same giant, omen-spouting moth creature that’s been plaguing—as Laura Linney’s sweetly earnest cop puts it—”the honest, churchgoing people” of Point Pleasant for years. Klein and a townsman (Will Patton, Hollywood’s current Peckinpahian unhinged yokel of choice) soon fall under the winged whatsit’s spell. Save for a few sketchy references to UFOs and industrial pollution, the beast’s motives remain frustratingly indistinct. A reclusive writer with supposed insight into the phenomenon, played by a winking Alan Bates and plainly based on Keel (the character’s name is “Leek”), fails to shed any light on the paranormal goings-on.
Hyperactive camerawork, a trancey score, and loose, spirited performances make Mothman Prophecies a diverting pulp time-waster. But the climactic introduction of a real-life disaster (hence the shifty tag line about a basis in “true events”) makes it something far more dispiriting. A sci-fi weepie about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one isn’t a bad idea per se, but the kitchen-sink approach here is no more enlightening than a “Shit Happens” bumper sticker. That tragedy is inevitable is hardly an invalid point, but nobody needs a bridge to fall on them to get it.
Calculated fatalism and gratuitous sacrifice also dominate Denis Villeneuve’s Maelström, a self-conscious urban character study from 2000. Bibiane, the scion of a powerful Montreal family, plods through her prescribed, pampered existence with little enthusiasm until an abortion, a disastrous business deal, and a traffic accident shake her out of her malaise. The film wanders all over the map thematically and stylistically, and borrows heavily from Lynch, Jeunet, and von Trier while failing to find a spark of its own. Video director Villeneuve shows a flair for chilly visuals and an admirable dedication to his heroine (played by the valiant Marie-Josée Croze), but what Maelström lacks is variation. After an hour or more of flat affect, not even a creakily redemptive love affair can lighten the mood. It merely softens the film’s dour, blunt-edged ironies into mushy serendipities.