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PLOT: From award-winning novelist and creator Neil Cross, and based on the best-selling book by Paul Theroux, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, “The Mosquito Coast” is a gripping adventure and layered character drama following the dangerous journey of a radical idealist and brilliant inventor, Allie Fox, who uproots his family for Mexico when they suddenly find themselves on the run from the US government.
REVIEW: When I was a kid, I tried to watch every Harrison Ford movie I could get my hands on. Expecting each film to be like Indiana Jones, I was sorely mistaken when I watched Blade Runner, Witness, Regarding Henry, Frantic, and Presumed Innocent. Ford was always excellent in his roles but the one that knocked me for a loop was The Mosquito Coast. Playing his most unlikeable character in Peter Weir’s 1986 drama, Ford imbued Allie Fox with a mania that failed to click with audiences or critics. Now, almost four decades later, AppleTV+ finally does the source novel justice with a sprawling, seven-episode series starring Justin Theroux, nephew of The Mosquito Coast author Paul Theroux. With updates and changes from the original novel, this new take on the tale of dystopian ideals and mental illness is more faithful to the book with a far more substantial character for Justin Theroux.
Created and written by Neil Cross (Luther) and directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), The Mosquito Coast shifts from the Fox family voluntarily relocating to Honduras and the titular coast where they develop a settlement into a utopian (and then dystopian) society. Now, Allie Fox is on the run from the United States government and takes refuge in Mexico. The first three episodes of the series race through introducing the off-the-grid family and their journey illegally crossing into Mexico. It is a harrowing and hard-to-watch journey that is the opposite of what many expect when thinking about illegal border crossings. By having a Caucasian family flee America for Mexico throws you off as the entire concept of this series does as the story advances.
By the halfway point of the series, we have barely scratched the surface of why Allie Fox is the way he is. A failed inventor who brilliantly uses discarded cooking oil to fuel his vehicles while shunning any sort of electronic devices like cell phones, television, or Xbox, he has an intimate knowledge of computers, the dark web, and recent technology. His children, fifteen-year-old Dina (Logan Polish) and younger brother Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) know something is happening with their parents. At times, Allie is quite attractive and persuasive but in his absence, we see that his hold on his family is tenuous. Margot (Melissa George) supports her husband’s lifestyle, but it is an ongoing mystery that you crave to understand: why does this family live this way?
Once the story shifts to the family in Mexico, I was hoping that the story would hew closer to the novel but aside from the character of Allie Fox, much of this story is completely new and different from what came before it. Even the title is a tenuous connection to the book. Watching the series, I was reminded more of stories like Better Call Saul and Ozark that find average people involved with criminals and cartels. Seeing Justin Theroux embody Allie Fox, you often cannot tell if you want to root for him or see him get what he deserves. Theroux is one of the most underrated actors working today and this performance is so far from his stellar work on HBO’s The Leftovers that it is hard to reconcile that it is the same actor. Allie is a character that is hard to like which makes every decision and action he takes brimming with anxiety as to how it will not only impact him but how it will cascade to his family as well.
The supporting cast are all good, especially Melissa George who holds her own opposite Theroux. There is also a great turn by Kimberly Elise as an NSA agent tracking the Fox family. While the acting is never questionable here and the direction is excellent, the series feels overlong. With each episode clocking in close to an hour, the narrative could easily have shed two full episodes and still told an effective story. For most of the series, I was torn between wanting to learn more details and desperately wanting them to skip ahead rather than linger on plot elements that are given far too much attention. There are multiple times through the series that a character is about to share something important before they are interrupted and we don’t get to find out a vital piece of information. The first time, I let it go, but after multiple rounds I began to feel that Neil Cross was trying to pad the story rather than getting to the point.
There is a lot to like in this series, much of which is enhanced by a nicely curated soundtrack. Wyatt’s direction is sun-drenched and makes some grisly visuals quite beautiful on screen. There is so much of this story that is harrowing that sometimes the darkly humorous side can catch you off guard. The idea that this is a series wholly against mobile phones and modern technology and is airing on a streaming service owned by one of the biggest tech companies in the world is an irony that I caught almost immediately. As a limited series, The Mosquito Coast is a worthwhile experience if only for Justin Theroux’s performance. Fans of the novel or the 1986 movie may be underwhelmed but everyone else may find this jaunt south of the border to be worth the investment.
The Mosquito Coast premieres on April 30th on AppleTV+.