At its best, this is a three notable scene movie. You’ll know them when you see them.
The Mothman Prophecies isn’t really a cohesive movie as much as a collage of images, an impressionistic exposition of the ghostly afterlife and the haunting limbo of the living. Director Mark Pellington goes into overdrive with style in this psychological thriller. His previous notable, Arlington Road, was a tightly drawn thriller with a healthy amount of surprises and suspense.
Here however, Pellington is taking a very different approach. He easily doubles the scene count, flashing image after saturated, overexposed image upon the audience. After the tedium, one gets the sense that he was going for a Fincherian Se7en, but in the process hyperstimulates the experience.
Though his style was probably the method of choice. After all, what better way to depict the disembodied afterlife than in the abstract? Yet Pellington persists in twisting our perspective so thoroughly, that our patience is tried.
So is John Klein’s (Richard Gere) for that matter. John is a journalist for the Washington Post. He and his beautiful wife Mary (Debra Messing) have just bought a new house and are truly happy. Then the universe, bemoans John, has it in for the couple as it decides one fateful night to smote his doting wife.
Never fear about this prophecy I’ve just betrayed. It happens near the very beginning of the film. Indeed, the bigger tragedy is that the ever-perky Ms. Messing was given no more than a bit part.
Apparently, Mary saw something that spooked the bejesus out of her. Whithering in the hospital, she spends her time drawing freaky pictures of the boogeyman, a man-like winged creature.
Poor John is tortured by his wife’s fatal bout with Agent Mulder-itis. So he’s off to figure out what or who is behind it. His quest to find the Mothman mysteriously brings him to Point Pleasant, West Virginia, where he encounters some very strange phenomena — missing time, weird phone calls, neurotic locals.
To his credit, Pellington doesn’t cop out and show us the Mothman in great detail, which I think given the subject matter would be a hopeless letdown. Instead, Pellington gives us very quick impressions of the beast, as shadow and blur, or garbled voice and whisper. But where the director goes wrong, I’m afraid, is in taunting the audience the entire way in anticipation of seeing Mothman. We plod along with John to catch a glimpse, to hear a muddy conversation, to find this Mothman and ask him what in the world he wants. But the best payoff we can hope for is: “we weren’t meant to know,” as the paranormal author Alexander Leek advises John.
Are the Mothmen angelic messengers, forewarning us of coming tragedies? Unlikely, as they drive some to kill themselves and strike others with brain tumors. Are they phantoms of the recently departed, trapped on earth to commune with their grieving loved ones? I suppose, but then why cause their loved ones so much more grief in the process?
And in the end, there’s really no great revelation as to what the Mothman really is or wants. That’s quite explored territory actually. So revealing prophecy aside, what we’re left with is John’s bizarre journey. At its best, there are maybe three notable scenes in the entire movie. One is early on, when John has his first phone call with Mothman. It’s genuinely creepy and convincing. The second is an equally sincere confession of John’s sorrow to newly confided friend Sgt. Connie Parker (Laura Linney). The last is the last scene of the film. If you don’t want to spoil the ending of the film, STOP READING NOW!
…For those still reading, you’ve obviously done your homework. As the film is “based on true events,” in 1966 a bridge collapsed as a result of all the Mothman sightings in West Virginia. And Pellington pulls out the stops Tacoma Narrows style.
Unfortunately, The Mothman Prophecies represents far less than the sum of its parts.