In theory, we should savor Allie’s comeuppance, but the film’s odd beauty derives from both how unsympathetic Ford’s portrayal is and also how much he seems to connect to Allie — how, in some strange sense, he understands this man. Partly, it might be because, like Allie, Ford has never worried about being endearing in his public life, proudly trumpeting his disdain for Hollywood’s glad-handing niceties. (“Image is something I try not to think about very much,” he said in ‘86. “The movie-business side of me is aware of its importance. But as an actor, I don’t care.”) Plus, it’s not hard to believe that Allie’s quest to escape — to not play society’s game — perhaps spoke to something who prefers living in Wyoming because “all the distraction and noise, all the confusion of misplaced, misdirected energy just don’t happen there.”
And maybe Ford, a lifelong Democrat, also appreciated the dilemma of a man speaking truth about America’s moral bankruptcy during the 1980s — even if that man is a nightmare of a human being. “This is a character who’s operatic in tone and so his criticisms are as exaggerated, overblown,” he explained, “but we all would hope for a more perfected America, which is not Ronald Reagan’s America.” Allie’s self-righteousness is obnoxious, but Ford provided him with a grumpy integrity.
If anything, Allie’s complaints about our cultural ills are even truer now than they were then. But it’s to Ford’s credit that he illustrates the limitations of being “right.” Scolding and proselytizing, Allie wants to change the world by reshaping it in his own image. There is no shortage of like-minded liberals in today’s climate — do-gooders whose message you may endorse but whose self-aggrandizement can be hard to take — and the character feels like a horrific amalgam of self-appointed Twitter saviors. Utilizing the same star power he wielded as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, Ford is so magnetic as Allie — so forceful in conveying the man’s braying demeanor — that the urgency of his cause is freakishly compelling. Even pricks can be seductive if they know how to command a room.
The Mosquito Coast may have bombed, but perhaps it was just ahead of its time: In the last couple decades, layered stories about “difficult men” have become a cottage industry, especially on the small screen. Simply by reimagining Allie Fox so that he fits into the prestige-TV template of the tormented, solitary man, Apple seems to be acknowledging how Ford’s portrayal anticipated this popular antihero type. But where series like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad had plot twists, episode-ending cliffhangers and other opportunities to let their characters show off their resourcefulness, Ford’s Allie simply sinks deeper and deeper into the hell of his own making, never quite smart enough to fight back against or delay the fate awaiting him. Prestige TV has demonstrated that our antiheroes will always come up with a clever way out of the mess they’re in, but the movie provides Allie no such lifeboat. Ford is terrific at depicting a proud man who’s slowly drowning. There’s a vulnerability to the performance that doesn’t elicit our pity — Allie gets what’s coming to him — but does reveal levels of desperation and weakness in Ford that were gripping, in part, because he’d never shown those tones on screen before. We weren’t used to Indiana Jones failing.
Ford doesn’t make movies much anymore, and his next one, appropriately enough, is yet another Indiana Jones sequel. The Mosquito Coast certainly won’t lead his obituary. But for those curious what this star could do away from the tentpoles, his performance as Allie is a jagged, uncompromising marvel.
Reflecting back on the film’s perceived failure, Peter Weir once discussed what was so great — but also so confusing to viewers — about casting Han Solo to play Allie Fox. “[Ford] did a wonderful job,” the director said, “but he brought so many expectations of the [traditional] hero that the film seemed to have a serious flaw in it, a problem in the film itself as if the film was wrongly made. … [T]he thing I loved was the thing the public hated.”
Fans of The Mosquito Coast love it for that exact same reason. Audiences preferred Harrison Ford as the good guy. But The Mosquito Coast remains haunting because it’s about a man who thinks he’s the hero — only to watch himself become the villain.