The Mosquito Coast gives familiar tale an exciting twist [Apple TV+ review]

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Justin Theroux, Melissa George, Logan Polish and Gabriel Bateman in The Mosquito Coast
Justin Theroux, Melissa George, Logan Polish and Gabriel Bateman in The Mosquito Coast
Photo: Apple TV+

The Mosquito Coast, the original cautionary fable about off-the-grid living, gets a shiny new update on Apple TV+ just as we’re all itching to get back out in the world after a year in quarantine.

Shepherded by director Rupert Wyatt and starring Justin Theroux, the show is an interesting addition to the ever-growing Apple TV+ lineup. It’s paranoid, fraught and full of personality.

The Mosquito Coast review: Episodes 1 and 2

Paul Theroux’s novel The Mosquito Coast was a kind of lightning bolt shot down on post-hippie America. In it, a man disgusted with America (in no small part because the country refused to grant him his dreams, like every other dissatisfied man) moves his family to the beaches of Honduras to live more simply. However, he runs into worse trouble than he could have imagined. Most of it is of his own making. But some of it is because the natural world he so admires doesn’t actually want interlopers running into it to survive on the fumes of rugged individualism and industrial age ingenuity.

The book served as a sort of ironic repurposing of antique “man adrift” novels like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or similar works by Joseph Conrad and Jules Verne. They focus on men who leave everything behind, purposefully or not, and then believe they can replace or even best what they left behind through their own creativity and steadfastness.

Man could beat nature or, at bottom, make nature make room for him. It’s an idea at the heart of lots of fiction, film especially, and Theroux connected the strain of survivalist stories to a fantastically brutal American ideology.

The American looked at the world and didn’t see an escape, but rather opportunity — the same as any capitalist. As much as antihero Allie Fox purports to want to leave the world behind, he won’t do it at the expense of his own ego. (There’s a reason his foil is a Christian missionary.) The shadow of who he believes himself to be stalks him and his family all through the jungles, and undoes their every effort at living “simply.”

I know, I know the sun is hot

Justin Theroux is headed for The Mosquito Coast: Apple TV+ review
Justin Theroux is headed for The Mosquito Coast.
Photo: Apple TV+

The book was terrifyingly adapted in 1986 by director Peter Weir. That film featured Harrison Ford’s best performance as a man so convinced he can do good he becomes monstrous.

But this was far from the only version of the story from that period. Nicolas Roeg’s Castaway is the same story told as a purposefully failed erotic tale. Randal Kleiser’s infamous Blue Lagoon stranded two teens on an island. And Albert Brooks’ Lost in America takes the same template and applies it to the U.S. heartland.

The long and short of it: The louder people proclaimed they were “done” with America, the harder time they had living anywhere else. America, its excesses and hypocrisies, had poisoned their blood. There’s no escaping that.

So while this new Mosquito Coast, whose first two episodes debut April 30 on Apple TV+, is a reboot, its story contours will be immediately familiar for a hundred reasons. What’s really cool about it, though, is that director Wyatt worked with a flotilla of capable writers. (The pack included Neil Cross, who helped write Mama and created Luther, and short story/video game writer Tom Bissell, whose work inspired the similarly minded The Loneliest Planet and Salt and Fire.)

They treat this story with tactile immediacy and narrative vigor. In essence, you don’t feel like you’re watching someone else’s idea. You’re too busy being whipped around by fate.

Mosquitos come suck your blood

In the first two episodes of the Apple TV+ version of The Mosquito Coast, we meet Allie Fox (played by Justin Theroux), his wife, Margot (Melissa George); their son, Charlie (Gabriel Bateman); and their daughter, Dina (Logan Polish).

The writers added a wrinkle to Allie’s backstory. He and Margot are on the run from the law. For the last 10 years, they have been changing their identities and moving from town to town every so often to stay ahead of their pursuers.

Charlie likes living the itinerant lifestyle, but Dina’s sick of it. She wants to be a normal high-school kid. So when two government agents show up (Kimberly Elise and James Le Gros), and Allie tells everyone they’ve got 10 minutes to pack, reactions are mixed.

Allie treats it like a blessing in disguise, a chance to leave America behind once and for all. Margot feels guilty because she suspects a payphone call to her rich parents (Kevin Dunn and Kate Burton) might have tipped off the feds to their new location.

Charlie is terrified, knowing so little of the world. And Dina tries to run away to be with her boyfriend, but she’s intercepted by Allie before she can flee. Once they evade their police tail, they’re off to Mexico illegally with the help of some border-crossing coyotes (Scotty Tovar and Tommy Martinez).

And leave you there all alone

Wyatt does a typically splendid job behind the camera. You could make an argument that turning The Mosquito Coast into a fugitive story robs it of a little of its bite. But when it’s done this compellingly, I find myself in a much less judgmental mood.

Wyatt is perhaps best known for directing the rather good Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), but his best work bookends it. 2008’s The Escapist and 2014’s The Gambler are exquisitely drawn studies of men trying to shed their skins and the oppressive locations that house them. 2019’s Captive State is also enormously impressive, a political cinema of momentum toward a common goal. You can see why this project appealed to him.

The foot and car chases, and the tense standoffs (there are many), are all pulse-pounding things, handled with the utmost dexterity. The textures look magnificent, and every object in the frame stands out. Wyatt directs the hell out of both a space (the homeless encampment where Allie and Dina seek refuge feels ripped from his dream journal) and a set piece. And The Mosquito Coast allows him to do so while also giving a group of committed actors room to the breathe.

Just skin and bone

Justin Theroux, whose uncle wrote The Mosquito Coast and serves as executive producer, is the biggest and showiest member of the ensemble, perhaps because he recognized what an opportunity he had to not just illuminate a piece of family history but to play a really specific kind of troublesome American.

The performer he most calls to mind here is a young Bruce Campbell — and that’s not a compliment I just toss around. He is magnetic, clearly a desperate maniac, yet absolutely impossible to stop watching (and thus root for, in that complicated character dynamic fashion).

George is the best I’ve ever seen her. Her phone call home tells you everything you need to know about her character, and indeed the whole family — the things they have to swallow and hide to stay alive.

Bateman and Polish both do quite convincing work as the Fox children, though I suspect their best work lies ahead. Le Gros and Elise are some of the greatest character actors in America, so seeing them teamed up is a treat. Le Gros is all hulking gruffness here. And Elise, one gets the impression, is only the nicer of the two by comparison.

The dynamics are so neatly and emphatically drawn in The Mosquito Coast‘s opening two episodes that I can’t help but be drawn in. The show may yet fail to stick the landing, but this is an elegant and exciting beginning and the tension is already killing me.

The Mosquito Coast on Apple TV+

The first two episodes of The Mosquito Coast arrive on Apple TV+ on April 30. New episodes will land on Fridays.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.