Like a thing foretold that doesn’t live up to advanced billing, “The Mothman Prophecies” develops as a portentous journey into cinematic doom which fails to fully evoke its chilling and tragic dimensions. Following in the M. Night Shyamalan school of characters with extra-sensory perception, pic blends contemporary American urban and rural settings with dark (and frequently red) forces that can be perceived by an unfortunate few, including generally cool-headed star Richard Gere in his most comfortable persona — a lonely man in a crisis. Director Mark Pellington hardly lets a moment pass without suggesting some bad vibes creeping onto the edges of the screen, but he’s let down by Richard Hatem’s script, based on John A. Keel’s book, which delivers an ounce when it promised a gallon. Word-of-mouth will dull post-opening turnout, but numbers should be in line with Gere’s other dramatic outings. Ancillary visitations will boost those numbers considerably.
“Based on true events in Point Pleasant, W. Va.” is what the opening informs, but what’s immediately clear is that the movie is equally based on the filmmakers’ ability to place auds into a frightscape that offers no way out. Soon after ace Washington Post reporter John Klein (Gere) and wife Mary (Debra Messing) seal the deal on a Georgetown brownstone, Mary crashes their car as she sees an image of a giant moth figure swooping into her view. A rare temporal lobe tumor proves fatal for Mary; by her bedside, John finds a sketchbook filled with her drawings of what looks like a moth with human arms and legs (though they actually look like she had been heavily borrowing from Francis Bacon).
Two years later, John, still a D.C. political reporter, is not fully over the loss of Mary. Driving overnight into Virginia, he inexplicably ends up 400 miles off-course in Point Pleasant, where he meets the grizzled Gordon (Will Patton, Hollywood’s favorite current crazy man).
Town cop Connie (Laura Linney, wearing what looked like Frances McDormand’s uniform and cap from “Fargo”) verifies John is a reporter, and admits that “things have been strange around here lately.”
Realizing he has a story on his hands, John investigates things with Connie, interviewing several townfolk who say they witnessed everything from visions in the sky to red lights to static-filled electronic noises over the phone. Pellington’s swooping and stalking camera and a tingly, nerve-wracking sound design by Claude Letessier do all they can to distract from some increasing narrative problems, starting with John’s Post job. He phones the office on occasion, but doesn’t seem to want to fill his editors in on the story, and it begins to feel like he doesn’t even care if he has a job to come back to.
The John-Connie relationship, which goes too quickly from courteous to intimate, hints at some unsure trimming. Still, Gere and Linney keep it from looking ridiculous.
It’s townie Gordon who gets the first signals that whatever forces are working on the town are warning of a coming catastrophe. The force even has a name — Indrid Cold (the voice of Bill Laing) — but it sounds more like the stuff of a pulpy page-turner than a fact-based chronicle.
At the one-hour mark, “Mothman” wanders away from its sustained atmospherics into silly expository detours led by a retired physics professor (a badly used Alan Bates), who once experienced the same moth-ridden prophecies of doom as John, and offers up a historical brief on the Mothman as a presence of bad tidings. John’s quick, unannounced visit to Chicago to see the prof, as well as a subsequent all-night drive to see him again, are only a part of the awkward plotting that slows the second half of the movie.
Story indicates, through ghostly re-appearances by Mary, that John is especially sensitive to the Mothman, and though the dead wife tries to keep him away from Point Pleasant, he returns just in time to witness the disaster we’ve been waiting for. Pellington stages a vivid but curiously unaffecting five-minute sequence that has John rescuing Connie from the subsequent destruction. The scene is terrible enough, but perhaps mitigated in the mirror of our post 9-11 world.
Besides a few moments of strained emotionalism, Gere performs within his zone, underplaying and taking in everything around him, being generous with his co-stars and looking great in a long black winter coat. As few stars recently have been, he is almost constantly on screen from start to finish.
The visual strategies employed by Pellington and lenser Fred Murphy never overlook a chance to inject the creeps, including tilted cameras, perspective-altering dissolves and even smeared raindrops on a car windshield made to resemble moths. Letessier’s amazing work is augmented by the minimalist trance music of group Tomandandy, exquisitely assisted by a battalion of guitarists including the commanding Glenn Branca.