The Mosquito Coast tells the story of a white family looking for paradise in the jungles of Central America – yet it’s also about how we grow up and apart from our parents.
What is The Mosquito Coast about?
Genius inventor Allie Fox (Harrison Ford) thinks America is dying – so he takes off for the jungles of Central America, dragging his wife and four kids with him.
Fox thinks he can tame the wilderness through sheer force of will (and a giant ice-making machine), but a series of unexpected events sends the family careering into danger.
Peter Weir’s 1986 film The Mosquito Coast is based on Paul Theroux’s 1984 novel of the same name. This page unwraps the film’s storytelling – with spoilers.
Whose story is The Mosquito Coast?
Despite predominantly being about eccentric inventor Allie Fox, son Charlie (River Phoenix) steers the narrative. His voiceover frames the film, giving us very different insights into Fox Snr at the beginning and end – from idealised dad to tyrant.
Seeing the film as Charlie’s story explains why Allie and Reverend Spellgood have opposing beliefs yet at times are painted as almost the same person:
- Both are well versed in the Bible (Allie’s knowledge actually surpasses Spellgood’s)
- Allie, like Spellgood, imposes his own ideas of civilisation on the jungle. Each gathers a congregation of natives to build their homes and churches under the promise of paradise
- Both call their wives by their functional title: “mother” (Helen Mirren’s character doesn’t have any other name)
- The locals call both men “father”
- Spellgood is God’s representative on Earth. Allie goes further: he sees himself as the saviour of a faulty world
- Allie burns the Reverend’s church the same way he destroys fat boy, the ice machine he built and worshipped. It’s no accident these two structures look so similar.
It’s interesting that Charlie’s narrative zeroes in on these two dads.
For all his flaws, Spellgood’s family are safe and well-fed. Allie makes his family endure poverty to prove himself right. Neither is perfect, yet Spellgood’s family comes to represent the life the Fox kids could have had.
A tale of three dads
The film’s plot is about a white American family looking for paradise in the jungles of Central America. But the story is also about how we separate from our parents to become individuals, a process which creates a ‘new world’ ripe with possibilities.
This is most apparent at the end when Charlie realises that – with Allie no longer pushing him away – he can finally love his dad. Now, he notes: “the world seemed limitless”.
Before that, however, Charlie and younger brother Jerry struggle with ambivalent feelings towards their dad. They dream of running away, and even of killing him – which is all rather Oedipal (see also 1965’s The Nanny).
When Charlie plays, he even creates a mock America comprising the things his dad hates most: money and consumerism.
But if Charlie and Jerry are in opposition to their dad, so is Allie Fox – though his ‘father’ is the Christian god.
Allie thinks he knows better than God, accusing Him of creating a flawed paradise. And he says that without the limiting beliefs of religion, people can aspire higher and be truly free.
This is ironic given Allie rules his own family like a despotic cult leader. He’s a version of Spellgood without the excuses of formal religion: both men claim to be creating paradise for others, yet it’s always self-serving. Both try to make a world in their own image.
Allie, though, is a tragic version of Spellgood. The Reverend may be dialling it in (he doesn’t even deliver his sermons in person any more) but it’s Allie who is cursed – albeit as a result of his own tunnel vision.
The new Jerusalem
Allie thinks America is dying. But in fleeing to an unspoilt world he recreates all its illnesses … and destroys the environment for those who already live there.
The white man’s colonialism expects to tame the jungle yet inevitably the heart of darkness they encounter is their own self-interest. Allie has ambiguous ideas about locals (similar to the way he marches into the homes of the Black workers in America). Eventually this erupts in plain-speaking racism when he calls Haddy a savage.
In fact, his expectations of savagery are entirely misplaced.
Allie turns up in the jungle with a gigantic fridge freezer – few things are more emblematic of consumerism as white goods. He thinks ice will civilise the place, but tunnel vision outwits him. Soon he’s raving without sense, abusing his family and dressed in rags … what could be less like civilisation?
It’s obvious Allie’s obsessions will end badly. The cinematography foreshadows it in the way the family laugh joyously on their first, filthy day in Jeronimo while the clouds creep across the landscape.
Likewise, they don’t question the abandoned stacks of ready-cut timber, even though it suggests others have tried and failed to thrive here.
There’s also the subtle clue of Allie’s glasses (relatively rare in a lead character). They denote intelligence as well as a man who can’t see clearly. That’s not just the visual world but family, America and self.
Allie knows his notion of paradise is unsustainable but can’t admit it. When the family wants to leave he kills America the only way he can, saying a nuclear bomb has wiped the country off the face of the planet.
1988’s Working Girl, which also stars Harrison Ford, memorably features Carly Simon’s anthemic New Jerusalem. The song, together with the plot, celebrates everything his character detests in The Mosquito Coast.
Allie fox against the world
The Mosquito Coast is a tragedy, not least in the way it ends. Allie’s hubris and insane actions conspire against him: he’s his own worst enemy.
In terms of story resolution, it’s fitting that Spellgood kills Allie – and perhaps it’s even destined to be so. When stories feature characters who are the same person seen from different perspectives, they can’t co-exist: one must leave or end the other. See also Heat, The Departed and Infernal Affairs.
Similarly, the film’s many oppositions do two things: they show us how Allie Fox stands alone against the world … and that it’s a doomed position.
When Spellgood barges into Jeronimo for the first time, the camera swings down low and behind Allie, positioning him like a gunslinger – albeit with a hammer rather than a pistol.
But if he’s the lone hero here, the image doesn’t last. He delivers his sermons whether or not anyone can hear him. And when his kids ask him to repair a bike he turns it into a laundry machine. He doesn’t see that redundancy and obsolesce (playing) can be joyful; as above, he can’t see their needs at all.
Allie forces his family to keep rank, but when they’re stranded on a beach after fat boy explodes, they sit conspicuously apart from him.
Eventually they’re working at entirely cross purposes. When the boys go ashore to visit their shadow family (the Spellgoods), Allie sneaks away to burn the church – a rather obvious cursing of the god who destroyed their paradise.
God answers back
Allie’s fate, and the film’s plot, isn’t a conventional cinema story about protagonists who overcome the odds. Allie doesn’t overcome the odds; he just dies.
Along the way, his journey is biblical: he’s the character who cries out to God, goes to war against Him and, ultimately, is destroyed by hubris.
Keep in mind that his trials are biblical, too. There’s flood and fire and, if not plague then leeches and (imaginary) termites.
Haddy warns Allie he’s on unsteady sand (build your house on the rock, as one hymn advises). Allie counters this by building an ark – a waterproof, floating home.
And yet, as they drift first into the ocean and later into the river, their bare-bones boat resembles a whale’s skeleton, bringing to mind Jonah, who fled God and ended up in the belly of the whale.
In the end, Allie sacrifices everything to this hallucinatory, delusional argument with God. And while he’s able to figuratively kill America, and brags about ending his own mother’s misery, this is one war he just can’t win.
The Mosquito Coast (1986), directed by Peter Weir
What to read or watch next
- The Nanny (fathers and sons)
- Greenland (starting over the in the new world)
- Se7en (paradise lost)
- Working Girl, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Harrison Ford, idealised America)
- Cast Away (Robinson Crusoe, island survival)
- Air (80s, the American dream)
Picture credit: Md Mahdi