'The Mist' Is Still Relevant for Unfortunate Reasons

The film's xenophobia reads differently 10 years later, but shows society hasn't changed totally for the better.

Director Frank Darabont knows Stephen King, or at least that was the idea sold by the marketing of 2007’s The Mist. Known for directing two of the best King adaptations, 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption and 1999’s The Green Mile, the thought of Darabont doing another King feature implied awards and critical acclaim would follow. But when The Mist debuted on Thanksgiving weekend in 2007, audiences were perplexed. The film’s dark, Twilight Zone-esque take on a mysterious event that drives a small town into chaos contained one of the bleakest (and most divisive) endings on record.

In short, audiences weren't necessarily happy leaving theaters. But how does the film hold up a decade later?

Like its source material, The Mist follows protagonist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and a group of people holed up in a supermarket after a mysterious mist wafts into town concealing all manner of unspeakable creatures. Darabont said he wanted to evoke The Twilight Zone’s “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” so much of the film focuses on conflicts among the people in the market as they look for some means of escape and survival, while others are drawn to a religious zealot named Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden).

David’s studio includes a “painting” of the poster for 1982’s The Thing (a remake of 1951’s The Thing From Another World), itself a look at how people can turn on each other in times of high stress and uncertainty (and also employing a supernatural catalyst). The film, irrespective of era, is a commentary on how men act when they presume civilization has crumbled — and in 2007 the belief was we were poised for a fall. The United States had entered the fourth year of the war in Iraq and was just a few weeks shy of the start of the worst economic recession in modern history.

In the small town of King's story, everyone knows each other, which only makes the horrors they perpetrate against one another all the worse. There’s a key distinction made between those born in town and out, the latter group including lawyer Brent Norton (Andre Braugher). Once everyone is confined to the supermarket, they divide into various factions, but Brent’s “out-of-towners” are turned away from both David’s group and Mrs. Carmody’s. Brent pointedly critiques how he and the others from out of town “pay taxes here” but are still unwanted. The out-of-towners, who once represented the likes of low-income families, now feel like Mexicans or any other specific immigrants to this country.

Braugher’s character is unique, both in the context of 2007 and today. As with many of King’s works, he’s the lone African-American in an all-white story. Situated as David’s antagonist, his rationality works in contrast to David’s. David has seen the creatures and knows they’re real, but Brent believes there’s a rational explanation for what David has seen. Brent quickly goes out into the mist with the other “out-of-towners” and is never seen again. The “mystical Negro” is a trope present in several of King’s texts, and though the character isn’t as offensively portrayed as The Green Mile’s John Coffey, Brent remains an oddly irrelevant character in the grand scheme of things. In 2007 though, it’s hard not to associate the character, a lawyer in opposition to the white hero, in the same vein as Barack Obama, an Illinois lawyer who started a campaign for president the same year of this film’s release.

If Brent felt like an Obama avatar in 2007, his removal from the narrative takes on a new context in a landscape of racial divide in 2017. The supermarket residents, all of whom are white, come off as isolating themselves from an unseen horror that’s different — in every sense, including racially. It’s difficult not to see them as resistant to Brent and eager to get rid of him from the market because of his race. The narrative of white-on-white violence comes off as silly in the real world, where so much violence is often incited, or ignored, because of skin color. At one point Mrs. Carmody discusses how those who don’t believe in God find themselves “privileged,” privileged to survive and thus entitled to take what they want, a far cry from how the term applies today, where we are more likely to think of the privilege based on race or class, not religion.

This small-town conservatism makes Mrs. Carmody both a villain and a representative of small-town thinking. The store's residents quickly separate into those who perceive her as having a direct line to God and those who think she’s a wacko. Jeffrey DeMunn’s Dan sums it up, “You scare people badly enough, you get them to do anything. They’ll turn to whoever promises a solution.” Mrs. Carmody’s religious proselytizing is both quaint and frightening. Her fears and solutions apparently come from God and religious texts, based in facts but open to interpretation depending on an individual’s personal thinking. As the years have gone on and we’ve seen the rise of Donald Trump’s presidency, Mrs. Carmody’s fears turn inward, away from established rhetoric based in religion and more on societal fears. Her need for “expiation” is no longer aimed at sacrificing small boys, but easily applied to minorities or Muslims in today’s society. 

This all comes to a head with the film’s dour ending where, after running out of gas, the group decides to kill each other. David quickly dispatches everyone in the car, including his own son, and walks out into the mist to die. Ten seconds later the government arrives with everything under control. With the country at war and about to enter a serious recession, the ending in 2007 appears to comment on humanity’s quickness to kill, even if it’s at the expense of “for the greater good.” David believes he’s sparing everyone a gruesome death, yet his actions are ultimately unnecessary and excessive. Hope must remain, even if you can’t see it. In 2017 the ending takes on a new message: that the government, uncommunicative throughout the entire film, takes its time to clean things up. Its arrival comes long after chaos and irreparable harm, and David is expected to be comforted by them. The film reclaims its bleak look at humanity in favor of a bleak look at the government institutions humanity employs.

The Mist remains one of the best horror films of the decade, with a meaning that perfectly changes with the times. In 10 short years it’s become even timelier, and more haunting in its dark messages of despair.