The Mothman Prophecies

Hey there Mothman, flutter on over my way
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2002
Director: 
Mark Pellington
Starring: 
Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Will Patton, Debra Messing
The Setup: 
Small town is beset by bizarre visions and visitations.
Discussion: 

I saw this at the theater when it was out, and generally liked it. It has a nice, even mood of sustained weirdness, all moving toward a conclusion that is pleasantly unusual and impressive, and doesn't make you feel like a chump. And I'm happy to report that it pretty well holds up on second viewing.

We open with a title telling us that this is based on real events that took place in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. More on that later. Then we meet Richard Gere as John, leaving work as a reporter for the Washington Post and meeting his wife, Debra Messing as Mary (noting those biblical names, right?) to go look at a house. They love it, and start canoodling in the house because they're so excited. By now we know that when we see a married couple in a movie still interested in sex with each other, that equals "happy marriage." On the drive home, Mary sees a kind of bat-thing, and gets in an accident. When she wakes in the hospital, she asks John "You didn't see it?" Turns out the accident didn't really hurt her, but in treating her, they find a brain tumor. She is soon dead. An employee of the hospital refers John to her notebook, which she filled with drawings of a terrifying bat-like creature with a devilish man's face.

Even at this point we see that director Mark Pellington is filling his film with a lot of tiny little atmospheric shots, and they work: when they're on their way to their car accident, we sense that Mary is driving too fast, and the car is verging on loss of control. This emphasis on atmosphere will pay big dividends as the film goes on.

Two years later! John is still mourning. He's driving down to Richmond one late night when his car suddenly dies. He goes to the nearby house to use the phone, and is greeted by Will Patton as Gordon, with a shotgun, and the belief that John has been by their house at this exact hour on the previous two nights. Laura Linney as local policewoman Connie is called. She takes John to a motel, where he learns that he is in Point Pleasant. He somehow traveled 400 miles off course in two hours. Spookyville!

The next day he meets Gordon again, and says weird shit is happening to him, too. That night Connie finds him outside Gordon's house again, waiting to see if another him shows up. She reveals that everyone in town has been having strange dreams and visions and phone calls and ATM balances in the past year. And these aren't flakes, these are, as is noted twice, "Good Christian people." They start investigating together, and meet a woman who saw an eight-foot man with glowing red eyes standing outside her house. They meet a couple who was screwing in their car, when they suddenly saw a bright light and creepy figure, after which the young man had red, bleeding eyes. Connie shows John a drawing one of the witnesses made of the figure, and it is exactly the same as what deceased wife Mary had drawn in her journal.

SPOILERS > > >
So Gordon, who has gotten quite as chummy with John as someone can when their sanity is slowly ebbing away, tells him the Mothman approached him while in his truck one day, and said "Denver 9, 99 will die." Then they're at the diner when they see on the news that flight 9 out of Denver crashed and 99 people died. Then they know that this shit is ON. And they realize maybe this is all about premonitions? Then Connie confesses that she had a visitation of her own, and was drowning with all these Christmas presents floating in the water, and heard a voice say "YOU'RE the next contestant on the Price is Right!" No actually, it said "Wake up, Number 37." Then John gets a call, which asks him to please hold for an important message from the Mothman, who tells him a bunch of secret things, then says that John will see his wife again, which totally freaks him out.

So John goes to Chicago to seek out Alan Bates as Alexander Leak, who wrote a book about such strange phenomena. He catches the author coming out of his apartment, and you might find it amazing that Leak is only too happy to leave off whatever he was on his way to do and have a jim-jaw with John. He continues the subtle Christian messaging by saying the messages come not from heaven, but "several degrees below." He tells John that the thing drew him to that town to die, and if he goes back, that's what'll happen. Bates is always a pleasure, and you need someone like him to lay down lines like "You know much more than a cockroach, have you ever tried explaining yourself to one?"

By now you're like, "How come the mothmen never dispense winning lottery numbers?" You know, do something nice for a change. Make someone's life a little better.

Anyway, John goes back and finds that Gordon has lost his job, and his wife has left him, and he's there on the bridge, lookin' pretty lowly. Hmm, we're starting to see this bridge more and more. Gordon doesn't off himself that night, but does the next day. By now a lot of spooky shit has gone down that I haven't even mentioned, and John is on the verge of cracking up. That's when his wife shows up at Connie's office, and John makes this huge scene about the chemical plant, which turns out to be completely wrong, and it looks like they should start preparing a padded room.

John once more finds doctor Leak, and demands to hear what happened. He says he started receiving predictions, and they started obsessing him, to the point where he lost his job, wife and kids. He says he had to decide "Which is more important? Having proof or being alive?" and he finally "turned away." Soon after John gets a message that Mary will call at noon on Christmas Eve, so he runs back to Washington to pick up the call. At a few minutes of noon, the phone rings! Only it's Connie, asking him by to celebrate Christmas with her family, and telling him to give up his quest to hear from Mary--she's dead, after all--and return to the living. He throws his stuff together to leave, then the phone rings! He makes the momentous decision NOT to answer it. He rips the phone out of the wall--but it still rings? The dead are way advanced in the wireless department. He decides not to answer, and leaves. We then have a close-up of Mary's eye in a photo, and we see the Mothman inside, retreating and being sent away. Choose life!

So John drives back to Point Pleasant, where he finds a big traffic jam on the bridge that has been slowly introduced over the course of the film. After a few clues, he pieces together: the bridge is going to fail. Pretty much all the people who have received premonitions are on the bridge, including Connie. Then we have a nice, long, slow, completely convincing bridge collapse. Connie gets knocked unconscious, and her car falls into the river. John jumps in after her, swims down and rescues her, with Christmas presents floating around in the water, just like in her dream. She soon finds out that 36 people died, and she would have been number 37, also tying in to her dream. Well, looks like Christmas eve is shot--maybe there's a Chinese place open?
< < < SPOILERS END

So it's a frivolous movie, well made. The movie is filled with tiny insert shots, some of which are just atmospheric, some showing the Mothman lurking around, just out of reach, but it's not just style, all of it works to make the movie intriguingly creepy, and keep the focus on impressions and spiritual intimations, showing how everyone is slowly losing their grip. It also displays John's increasingly unhinged state of mind. Then there's the subtext, which pits the positivity of Christianity against a morbid fascination with death and knowing things humans shouldn't know, which is lightly alluded to as coming from Satan. John finally decides to turn away, and concentrate on people who are alive, and at that point we see the demon or whatever it is the Mothman represents, turn away and be vanquished. So they've decided to anchor the whole story with this allegory of being tempted by dark foreknowledge, with its attendant morbidity, or choosing to ignore that and concentrate on light and life. Which is a fairly compelling way to tie these events together, and give the whole thing a narrative suitable for a movie.

I also appreciate the general strangeness of the ending, which doesn't arise from the characters taking decisive action, as in most films, but has them standing by, passive victims of a larger circumstance. It lets the big explanation of what's been happening be the big climax, and it works. That done, the movie ends, without having to have John turn to Connie and declare his love, or anyone saying what they've learned or how they're a better person, it all just leads to this huge event, the end, offering a big hint as to what was going on, but still leaving the where's and why's unexplained. Nice!

So a generally fun while somber and thoughtful little movie, with nice performances. It's especially nice to see Linney get a juicy role, which she is completely convincing and charming in, as well as Will Patton get some good screen time. And Gere, regardless of what you may think of him, is fine, and dials it all down to remain somber and spooked. So when you're in the mood for a spooky X-Files-esque mystery with a satisfying but not to literal ending, here you go. Watch this, not Dragonfly.

Should you watch it: 

Sure, it's a nice little sustained spook-out with good performances, a subtext, and a satisfying ending.