tv review

The Mosquito Coast Is Filled With Unpleasant Wisdom

Justin Theroux and Melissa George star in The Mosquito Coast. Photo: Apple TV+

Despite its undeniable quality, The Mosquito Coast might have trouble finding a wide audience, for a couple of reasons. First, this new Apple TV+ saga of a brilliant, resourceful, charming, but borderline megalomaniacal inventor named Allie Fox (Justin Theroux) living off the grid with his family is an antihero-driven production, characteristic of prestige TV from ten or more years ago: Imagine if the Whites on Breaking Bad had to go on the run. Second, and perhaps more important, is the PTSD trigger effect: When you watch The Mosquito Coast, you’re watching the improvised misadventures of a charismatic but unhinged patriarch who keeps getting the people he’s sworn to care for into trouble; avoiding exposure, capture, or death through a mix of audacity, low cunning, and dumb luck; then blowing up the family’s equilibrium again. Rinse, repeat. Audiences lived through this TV series for four-plus years in real life, with tragic consequences, including a half-million unnecessary plague deaths. The Mosquito Coast sometimes feels like an analysis-in-metaphor of the most recent era in history, as well as of the emotional mechanics of cults in general, wherein reflexive tribal loyalty trumps skepticism and rational self-interest. It’s about how we got here, and how we always get here.

As such, it’s filled with unpleasant wisdom, delivered with the panache of a one-damned-thing-after-another adventure. As he proved on HBO’s The Leftovers, Theroux can play a stoic, instinctive macho hero. With his intense eyes, square jaw, lush head of hair, and washboard abs, he’s a mid-century action toy come to life. But his work as an eccentric indie film personality (and screenwriter-director) makes him believable as an intellectual who lives in a world of ideas, rarely acquiescing to the demands of everyday life unless he has no choice. Theroux and show creators Neil Cross (Luther) and Tom Bissell (a novelist and journalist) have enlarged the scope of the story, which begins in Southern California and tracks the Foxes across the Mexican border and into South America. They’ve also distributed the story’s attentions democratically among the four members of the family. The writing and filmmaking elucidates the particulars of Allie’s relationship with his longtime wife, Margot (Melissa George), his middle-school-age son, Charlie (Gabriel Bateman), and his older daughter, Dina (Logan Polish), who becomes the show’s gravitational center more quickly than you might’ve expected. Pretty early on, you grasp that the big question is how long the Foxes’s darkly idyllic existence can continue. Allie did something horrible a long time ago — so bad that not even the kids know the details — and now the family seems to spend its entire life walking, Wile E. Coyote–like, on thin air where a cliff’s edge used to be. As long as they don’t look down, everything will be fine.

Margot, Dina, and Charlie believe what Allie tells them in large part because Allie has constructed a world in which the most urgently necessary information comes from Allie. He’s the father, God, the church, and the media rolled into one, demanding (and receiving) trust and adoration even as he rails against the decadence and corruption of post-industrial American serfdom and impulsively quits his job at a GMO-like corporate farm because his manager won’t spend a lot of money licensing the ice-manufacturing machine that he’s created. (How unintentionally weird it is to watch this rabidly anti-capitalist show on a streaming platform owned by Apple, which has repeatedly been accused of exploitative labor practices in its factories.)

The series is faithful to the spirit (though not the letter) of the 1981 source novel by Paul Theroux (uncle of Justin) as well as the 1986 Peter Weir movie adaptation, which cast Harrison Ford, a leading man viewers would follow into hell, as an inventor and father who creates a Hell-on-earth and traps himself there along with his family. The movie bombed at the box office, erasing the goodwill Weir and Ford generated with their prior collaboration, Witness. That Oscar-nominated box office hit starred Ford as John Book, a grumpy but fundamentally decent cop who could always be relied upon to defend women and children against bullies, rather than, say, drag them on a whim into the Amazon jungle, aiming to “civilize” local tribespeople with an ice-making machine, and setting himself up as the ruler of his own kingdom, like Kurtz from Apocalypse Now reincarnated as an associate professor who thinks he can’t get tenure because he’s too much of a maverick idealist, when the real problem is that he’s a selfish asshole. Allie’s by-the-seat-of-his-pants improvisations have dire consequences here, again and again, including loss of life and limb, and he gets to keep driving the story forward because, in the spirit of this American archetype, he’s left everyone around him no choice. When the bridge behind you has been destroyed, you can’t go back over it again.

The dark masterstroke of Witness, in retrospect, was the thing that turned mass audiences off of Mosquito Coast, and it’s the engine driving this show: the realization that John Book and Allie Fox are different ways of looking at the same pop-culture archetype. Westerners have been conditioned to believe that if a halfway presentable white guy with a dynamic speaking voice presents himself as a natural-born leader, he should be accepted as such, invested with our confidence, and given carte blanche to do whatever he deems necessary for the good of the organization; if his choices lead to disaster, it’s the natural byproduct of his freewheeling boldness, rather than evidence that his plan sucked.

Like Walter White, Don Draper, and Tony Soprano before him, this guy is both the arsonist and the firefighter, cementing his hold over other characters by figuring out how to resolve crises manufactured by his own arrogant impulsiveness. At its best, The Mosquito Coast generates a masochistic tingle: the horror-adjacent excitement that comes from wondering how things could possibly get worse. Did it have to be an hourlong serialized drama? If you know where this story is eventually going to end up, geographically as well as emotionally, it can seem as if the writers are unnecessarily running out the clock in order to get the next binge-tailored ending to land at the 55-minute mark. But there’s enough going at the level of performance and characterization that you rarely feel as if a given scene is devoid of purpose. If anything, the moments of character development become more engrossing and seem more important because there’s a mystery to them. You know the storytellers aren’t going to kill off any of the central characters, which means that (as on Breaking Bad, The Americans, The Sopranos, etc), you’re always aware that the cliffhanger storytelling is a problem-solving exercise, especially in scenes where Allie MacGyvers his way out of police handcuffs with help from Dina, or promises a couple of ex-convicts with ankle bracelets that he knows how to remove them, and will be happy to do it if they’ll provide passage across the border.

But you don’t always know why the characters make certain choices at certain moments, particularly moments of life-or-death crisis. And when you see the Foxes in action-film mode, you understand them in a way that you didn’t when they were embroiled in more ordinary domestic interactions (like Allie blowing his stack after discovering that Dina has her own cell phone and is using it to talk to a boy). This is a family that sticks together and acts as one even when they’re questioning whether Allie is really protecting them from the predations of capitalist society, or just tricking them into joining him as he reaps what he’s been sowing throughout his life. Are they loyal to each other, or merely indoctrinated? Functionally, what’s the difference?

The Mosquito Coast Is Filled With Unpleasant Wisdom