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The Mothman Prophecies

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"The Mothman Prophecies" claims to be based on a true story, which sent me racing to the Web for a little research. And, yes, there is a belief among the folks in Point Pleasant, W.Va., that a mothlike creature with red eyes can occasionally be glimpsed in the area. Some say he is a spirit evoked by a long-dead Indian chief. Others blame him for a deadly bridge collapse. John A. Keel has written a book about Mothman, and now here is this movie. The "true story" part involves the possible existence of Mothman; the human characters are, I believe, based not on facts but on an ancient tradition in horror movies, in which attractive people have unspeakable experiences.

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Richard Gere stars as a Washington Post reporter named John Klein, who is so happily married (to Debra Messing) that when they agree to buy a new house, they decide to test the floor of a closet for lovemaking purposes, to the surprise of the real-estate agent who walks in on them. If there's one thing you demand in a real-estate agent, it's the good judgment to leave a closet door closed when he hears the unmistakable sounds of coitus coming from behind it. Furthermore: Gere is 53. He's in great shape, but to make love at 53 on the floor of a closet with a real-estate agent lurking about is, I submit, not based on a true story.

Then Klein and his wife are in a crash. "You didn't see it, did you?" she asks, and before she dies, she draws a picture of a mothlike creature she saw flattened against the windshield. Unlike most windshield bugs, this creature has many forms and lives, as Klein discovers when his life takes a turn into the twilight zone. Driving, as he thinks, to Virginia, he ends up hundreds of miles away in West Virginia, and when he knocks on a door for help, the frightened householder accuses Klein of having harassed him for three nights in a row.

Laura Linney plays Connie Parker, a local cop. She trusts Klein, and together they get involved in a strange series of events, which culminate in a bridge collapse and a dramatic rescue of the sort that is always particularly annoying to me, because it displaces the focus of the movie. Is this a movie about the Mothman, or about a daring rescue after a bridge collapse? And since the Mothman presumably still exists, how does the happy ending after the bridge collapse really settle the story? It's lazy for a movie to avoid solving one problem by trying to distract us with the solution to another.

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The director is Mark Pellington ("Arlington Road"), whose command of camera, pacing and the overall effect is so good, it deserves a better screenplay. The Mothman is singularly ineffective as a threat because it is only vaguely glimpsed, has no nature we can understand, doesn't operate under rules that the story can focus on, and seems to be involved in space-time shifts far beyond its presumed focus. There is also the problem that insects make unsatisfactory villains unless they are very big. Gere and Linney have some nice scenes together. I like the way he takes a beat of indecision before propelling himself into an action. This is Linney's first movie since "You Can Count on Me," which won her an Oscar nomination. I saw it again recently and was astonished by her performance. The melancholy lesson seems to be, if you make a small independent movie for very little money and are wonderful in it, you can look forward to being paid a lot of money to appear in a big-budget production in which the talent that got you there is scarcely required.

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