Two years after the tragic death of his wife, reporter John Klein (Richard Gere) finds himself investigating a bizarre story in a small West Virginian town. Local residents have claimed to see a tall, winged figure with piercing red eyes wandering near their homes at night. Dubbed the Mothman, the creature makes appearances before disasters, prompting some to believe it is a messenger bringing a warning, while prompting others to believe it is a harbinger of death and doom. The Mothman quickly becomes an obsession for Klein when eyewitness sketches of the creature match drawings his wife made just before her death.
With its preference to leave the inexplicable unexplained, The Mothman Prophecies is a genuinely unsettling thriller full of dread and tension. A modern tale of paranormal mythology, it maintains suspense by never really solving any of the mysteries it proposes, and never exposing the creature beyond the shadow of doubt--and in this case, it works. After all, what's scarier in a horror movie that is striving for a realistic tone: the overt display of a monster running around, or the mere suggestion that something sinister is lurking out there with your name on it? The Mothman is a creepy notion, made creepier by the suggestion that it may be some sort of angel of death (it is often quoted as saying, "Do not be afraid," a typical angelic greeting in the Bible).
Adding another layer of eerie mood is the excellent use of sound. As in The Exorcist, slightly inhuman voices and tape recordings produce a hair-raising effect. Telephone conversations play an important role here, and set the scene for one of the most memorable moments: Klein receives a late night call from a local resident he befriends (Will Patton), who calmly tells Klein that the Mothman is there in his living room, standing next to him. Klein subsequently asks to speak to the creature, which obliges him and offers a demonstration of its prophetic powers. The exchange is the closest the movie gets to revealing the creature, and may overstep the boundaries of its otherwise subtle presentation--but it also injects mystery by calling the Mothman's intentions into question. Is it good, evil, or just the perception of the beholder? When Klein asks, "What do you look like?" the Mothman replies, "It depends on who's looking."
Richard Gere delivers a solid and believable performance in the midst of unbelievable circumstances, as does Laura Linney as a police officer who assists in Klein's investigation. Though they share a mutual attraction, a token romance never overshadows the main story. Their understated relationship is a nice touch that helps to root the story in reality and keep the paranormal angle in check.
Will Patton is also good in his supporting role--a sympathetic man whose grip on sanity slowly erodes over the course of the film. He goes from being an upstanding citizen to an unsettling devotee of the Mothman, and is equally convincing with both personas. And Debra Messing (yes, Grace from television's Will and Grace) scares up a few shocks in some well-timed appearances as Klein's dead wife.
The weakest character in this story of the supernatural is an author who provides Klein with information about the Mothman. He is nothing more than a cliche tool--an easy plot device to explain things and push the story along in the most pedestrian way possible. Lack of originality aside, the problem is that he is the typical "smart guy who knows things" found so often in bad horror and science fiction films: he leaks just enough information to set the mood and pique interest, but then conveniently falls short of a full explanation by claiming, "I can't talk about this anymore!"
The Mothman Prophecies falters in the last 20 minutes--its disaster flick finale and a heart-to-heart between Gere and Linney are both considerably less subtle and interesting than the rest of the movie. Nevertheless, it remains an accomplished supernatural thriller that substitutes atmosphere for monsters and puts substance high on its list of priorities.
Rating: 8 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)