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The Mosquito Coast is streaming on Apple TV+.

Film and TV credits, though they doubtless mean something to people in the industry, can be baffling for the outsider. ‘Executive producer’, for example: in other businesses, an executive is the person who actually does things; in film, the executive producer often seems to be producing in name only.

It’s hard to believe that, say, the late Stan Lee actually had a hands-on role in the 150-odd Marvel-derived films and television programmes on which he was listed as executive producer, especially given that the vast majority of these credits came after the millennium, when he turned 78.

I’m not convinced, either, that Paul Theroux – one of eight people listed as “executive producer” on the opening credits of The Mosquito Coast (and that’s not counting the co-executives) – was intimately involved with the making of the series: he is 80 years old, after all, and lives in Hawaii, far from filming. Also, it is hard to see what input he has had. Really hard. According to the credits, the series – “created for television” by Neil Cross, “developed” by him and Tom Bissell – is “based on” Theroux’s 1981 novel of the same name; but ‘based on’ is another phrase that can lose its common-sense, everyday meaning when it turns up in credits.

In the novel (as in Peter Weir’s intelligent big-screen adaptation of 1986), the central character is Allie Fox, an arrogant maverick, brilliant at making things, filled with contempt for modern America, who takes his wife and two teenage sons off to the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua and Honduras to build a better life in the jungle; as the story progresses, the boundaries between self-belief and paranoid self-delusion become blurrier, and things go badly wrong – Swiss Family Robinson turns into Aguirre, Wrath of God.

Logan Polish, Melissa George and Justin Theroux in The Mosquito Coast (2021)

For the first few minutes of the opening episode, the television series seems to be in the same universe – we’ve moved on 40 years and cross-country from Massachusetts to California, but why not? As in the novel and the film, Allie Fox is an arrogant maverick working for an asparagus farmer who refuses to buy into his idea for a refrigerator that works on burning oil (“Ice from fire”).

Then the story takes a new fork: it turns out that Allie and his wife are, for reasons that remain frustratingly undisclosed, persons of interest to the government, living under assumed names. Allie drags the family south not to Central America but across the border to Mexico, and not because he has a vision of a better life, but because US government agencies – and, within a couple of episodes, a drug cartel – are on their tail.

There’s every reason why a television version should feel free to leave behind the source material: apart from anything else, Theroux’s novel follows the trajectory of tragedy, while a TV series in hopes of a second season can’t afford that kind of closure. The problem is not that it fails to resemble Theroux’s original, but that this family-cum-chase-cum-crime thriller resembles so much else, not just in tone and outline – the thematic echoes of Breaking Bad (2008-13), Ozark (2017-); No Country for Old Men (2007) and Sicario (2015) are deafening – but in detail.

A scene that plays on the superficially incongruous enthusiasm for Morrissey among Mexican Americans will be less surprising to anybody who saw Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018). Ian Hart is always a welcome presence, but the quiet, relentless assassin he plays here recalls half a dozen of the breed (same pork-pie hat as Jude Law in Road to Perdition, 2002, for instance), and he’s introduced committing a murder that’s virtually a clone of Albert Brooks killing Bryan Cranston in Drive (2011), except that it’s the throat he slashes rather than the wrists.

Melissa George as Margot in The Mosquito Coast (2021)

If you can shake the sense of déjà vu, the series has virtues: beautifully shot, well scored (some Mexican hip hop worth following up), strongly cast. As Allie’s wife, Margot (an advance on the film, where Helen Mirren was billed as ‘Mother’), Melissa George conveys both love and mistrust for her husband, and herself. The children, now a girl (Logan Polish) and a boy (Gabriel Bateman), are excellent at showing adolescent ambivalence towards family, at times joyously conspiratorial, at others poleaxed by resentment and trauma.

As Allie, Justin Theroux (another executive producer, and Paul’s nephew – but the public line is that that’s just coincidence) has a harder job: in the movie, Harrison Ford could push the character to extremes, but Theroux has to keep him jogging along at the same pitch of not-quite madness, in case it starts to feel like we’re moving to a conclusion. There is strong support, too, from Scotty Tovar as the Morrissey-loving coyote who smuggles them over the border and the veteran Mexican actress Ofelia Medina as a cold-hearted cartel matriarch. All it really lacks is some sense of what’s the point of it all.

Further reading

Breaking Bad and the secret life of Walter White

Breaking Bad and the secret life of Walter White

BFI Recommends: Ozark

By Lou Thomas

BFI Recommends: Ozark

Sight & Sound June 2021

In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.

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