It's kind of ironic that just when "The X-Files" announces the end of its run on television, "The Mothman Prophecies" (IMDb listing) enters movie theaters nationwide. Playing like an episode of the landmark show, "Mothman" has mood and suspense to spare, but has serious trouble trying to find an opening for the audience to enjoy the mystery.
John Klein (Richard Gere) is a Washington Post reporter beginning to settle down to life with his beautiful wife, Mary (Debra Messing, "Will And Grace"). When the two are involved in a car accident, Mary claims she saw an unidentifiable moth-like beast, which forced her to crash the car. John is disbelieving, but during a late night drive to clear his head, he finds himself miles away in a small town on the border of West Virginia. It is in this town that John finds the local folk haunted by the very same visions. Teaming up with the local sheriff (Laura Linney, "You Can Count On Me"), John sets out to investigate the origins of the mysterious "Mothman."
Director Mark Pellington is best known in the film world as one of the leading music video directors of the 1990s. He also directed the 1999 thriller "Arlington Road" starring Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins. A hot button film about suburban terrorists, "Road" was tense, frightening and often jolting. Yet, the film was never that good. Every single moment of true tension was deflated by Pellington's abrasive eye. A visual stylist, Pellington has never met a camera angle he didn't like. He drowned "Road" in technique when all that was needed was a steady grip. It should come as no surprise that "Mothman" is torpedoed by the same aesthetic.
Pellington's camera is all over the map, from the very tops of trees to the depths of a river, but is this supposed to mean anything? Are the camera angles meant to simulate the Mothman's perspective? Pellington provides no answers, just an endless fascination with camera movement. And it never adds up. You could take out more than half the shots in this film and you would have something infinitely more creepy. Pellington is trying hard to conjure mood with his style, but I'm not sure he understands that he is suffocating his own movie at the same time. "Mothman" looks great (photographed by Fred Murphy), but the ADD mood of the film is clearly covering a story that doesn't have much meat on it.
Written by Richard Hatem (from a book by John Keel), "The Mothman Prophecies" is based on a true story of supernatural incidents that happened in a small town. These incidents were never explained, nor proven to be fact. So why make a film out of this unnecessary story? The object of "Mothman" is to find chills and thrills in a tried and true "X-Files" way. To entice the audience with unexplainable phenomena. This should all build to a crescendo in the end where some answers are given, and the rest are handed shadowy outlines for the crowds to mull over in the coffee shop after the film. But the answers never come, and not even theories are introduced. The case was unexplained, and Pellington goes out of his way to make sure it stays that way. I should be thankful that the Mothman wasn't rendered as some horrible, computer generated monster, but where is the mystery? "Mothman Prophecies" is a tough film to get interested in, as the whole film is one long buildup to nothing.
In the lead role, Richard Gere is the film's most honest mystery. I've always held a soft spot for Gere in my heart, but he is an actor who is prone to overextending beyond his limited capabilities. For "Mothman," Gere is sent through the wringer of emotions, and considering his talents, achieves some success in the role. Trouble arises when it becomes clear that Pellington has zero focus for his film, thus hanging Gere out to dry with a character that is incomplete. It leaves the performance uneven, and often melodramatic.
Also unpolished is an obviously aborted romantic subplot between Gere and the obscenely gifted Laura Linney. As two strangers who share limited screen time, the characters cozy up fairly fast, and there are remnants of moments that suggest an intimacy that didn't make it into the final cut. I applaud Pellington for trying to ditch any romantic detours (the film hardly needs them), but what remains of this plot thread in the film is confusing to the bigger picture.
There is a kind of twist/surprise ending to "Mothman" (isn't there one for every film nowadays?). But instead of leaving me with an unsettled, shocked feeling, the end brought me endless joy that the film was finally nearing its completion. While "The Mothman Prophecies" is another valid attempt by Pellington to mount an unsettling paranoia thriller, I still believe he has a lot to learn about building tension and paying it off.
Filmfodder Grade: C-