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Fright Right 

In a scene midway through director Mark Pellington's sophomore effort, The Mothman Prophecies, newspaperman John Klein (Richard Gere) tries to find the elusive truth about supernatural phenomena from former researcher Alexander Leek (Alan Bates). Klein wants to know why aliens may be trying to contact him. Leek, whose searching cost him job and family, points up to two window-washers high up on a skyscraper, noting that they can see a car crash before we can down here. Klein persists. If aliens are trying to contact us, why won't they explain themselves to us? Leek can only shake his head: "Have you ever tried to explain yourself to a cockroach?"

It's moments like these, heightened by a kinetic filmmaking style, that makes The Mothman Prophecies such an engaging piece. Even in its more subdued moments -- and there are many -- the film bristles with an energy not often found in that nether region between thriller and horror movie. That this story is based on supposedly true events chronicled in former Washington Post reporter John Keel's novel of the same name seems almost totally irrelevant, thereby saving us the trouble of worrying about its authenticity. This story stands on its own.

Pellington (Arlington Road) seems to be saying what the massively popular TV show The X-Files has been trying to say for almost a decade: the truth may be out there, but who's to say we'll ever comprehend it and are we willing to pay the price for it? And yet, swimming in waters polluted for years by one cliche after another, Pellington keeps Mothman quite clean, despite some fairly conventional devices.

In Gere, Pellington has found a near-perfect vehicle with which to drive this story. When not distracting his career with silly love stories, Gere is one of those fine-wine actors who gets more interesting with his role choices. Pulling a chapter from his overlooked work in Primal Fear (where Edward Norton understandably got all the praise), Gere is able to add dimension to the cool that marked his early work and to allow exterior circumstances to crack his shield. His soft brown eyes, once used to seduce, can now crackle with fear of the unknown.

His character is put in that very position at what appears to be the peak of his life; as a successful reporter, he and his beautiful wife Mary (Will and Grace's Debra Messing) are about to close on their dream house. While driving home, she inexplicably crashes the car when she sees two red barrier lights on the road's horizon -- and soon dies almost as mysteriously. Before dying, she whispers to John, "You didn't see it, did you?" And as he's packing her things, he notices she'd been drawing Rorschach Test-style images of a moth.

Two years later, he's on assignment, but an overnight drive to Richmond, Va., turns into a 400-mile journey off course that lands him in a small town on the West Virginia-Ohio border. In short order, he learns through local cop Connie Parker (Laura Linney) of mysterious occurrences happening to otherwise ordinary townfolk. Tops on the list is the experiences of shaky Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton), whom Klein ultimately befriends because of what he believes is a shared situation.

Klein becomes absorbed in the city, the people and the phenomena as he tries to solve a mystery that starts out as a catharsis but turns into an obsession. The closer he gets to the truth -- which could spell tragedy for the town -- the more endangered his life becomes. "Whoever brought you there," Leek (Keel spelled backwards) warns him, "brought you there to die." When a voice calling itself Idrid Cold invades Smallwood's phone and later Klein's, things get hairy.

Potential potholes lie everywhere in this film, and Pellington navigates virtually all of them with surprising nuance. The expected love story that develops between Klein and Connie isn't an excuse to show off Gere's sex appeal but a necessary plot device -- it is at once wholly there yet barely anything physical happens. Smallwood's growing madness could have become a cartoon, but instead is tragic. There's no government conspiracy, and Klein's editors back home are kept wondering what's going on but don't intrude in the story. Instead of the whistles and bells that often drown out a thriller/horror film, Pellington instead pricks away at the audiences with his aural screeches, howls and groans, flashing strands of light, images that at first feel almost subliminal.

And in what may be the most telling statement of Pellington's subtlety, there's really only one "shock" moment in the film where the audience jolts backward. Imagine that.

In the end, The Mothman Prophecies raises more questions than it answers, which is as it should be in dealing with the supernatural and the paranormal. But steeped inside all those questions (and the occasional freak-out) is a story, true or not, you can cling to with nothing less than a death grip.

click to enlarge Collect call: Newspaper reporter John Klein (Richard Gere) talks to an intimate stranger in The Mothman Prophecies.
  • Collect call: Newspaper reporter John Klein (Richard Gere) talks to an intimate stranger in The Mothman Prophecies.


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