“Look around ya. How did America get this way?” Allie Fox asks his son, Charlie, as they rattle through suburban Massachusetts in an old pickup truck. “Land of promise. Land of opportunity. Give us the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Have a Coke! Watch TV! Go on welfare! Get free money! Turn to crime! Crime pays in this country.” Charlie laughs at his father in awe. “Look around you, Charlie. This place is a toilet. ... Nobody ever thinks of leaving this country. I do—I think about it every day. I’m the last man.”
Allie Fox is played by a smirking, sweaty Harrison Ford with long, slicked-back hair under a ball cap. In Peter Weir’s 1986 film The Mosquito Coast, which is faithful to the 1981 novel by Paul Theroux, the character rants and rails against American obesity and corporate greed, the failures of the government, religion, and just about everything in between. He gets so fed up with the United States that he takes his family to the jungles of Central America, where he believes he can create a perfect society from scratch on the premise of efficiently creating ice. (“Ice is civilization!”) Allie Fox is incisive in his diagnoses of modern society’s sickness, he’s resourceful and inventive (“My father’s a genius,” says Charlie); he’s also an arrogant know-it-all (“the worst kind of pain in the neck,” according to his employer) full of prejudices and anger, an increasingly deranged complainer and would-be colonizer.
In other words: He’s an American.
Weir’s film turns 35 this year, and on Friday, Apple TV+ introduced a new take on Allie Fox, played by Justin Theroux—the novelist’s nephew. The actor describes Allie as almost “über-American. He’s definitely got that frontier spirit, or that wanderlust. Certainly the ability to complain about the country. I think of him as part Jack Kerouac, part Hemingway, part Henry David Thoreau.” He’s “a guy full of opinion,” says Paul Theroux. “Hates the government. ‘We can do this. Buy a town, figure it out.’ You can’t imagine an English person like this, or a German, or anyone else. He’s kind of a classic loose cannon.” For Paul Schrader, who adapted the novel for Weir’s film, Allie is “that kind of all-American hustler, that con man. You know, that Donald Trump character. That sawdust preacher.”
Allie Fox was as timely and recognizable in the early ’80s as he is in the early 2020s. In all of his iterations, the character joins a long tradition of American contrarians and idealists, optimistic tinkerers and revolutionaries, paranoiacs and holy fools. Like a lot of Americans, he thinks everyone else is the problem and that he has all the answers. It’s that unique yet recognizable mix of inventiveness and repugnance that makes Allie Fox such an indelible American character. Way back when, his creator loved putting words in his mouth. Since then, actors like Ford and Theroux have been eager to put on his clothes; critics have wrestled with his unlikability; and readers and viewers have fallen for his infuriating charisma.
“I remember when we did the scene when Allie Fox tells his family that they can’t go back to America because it isn’t there anymore,” says Harrison Ford. “Peter stopped me and said, ‘You’re playing this like the guy’s crazy.’ I said, ‘Well, Peter, he is crazy. He’s completely fucking nuts.’”
Paul Theroux was going on 40 when he began writing The Mosquito Coast in 1979. Like Allie, he’d grown up in Massachusetts and was now a father of boys; the character’s story was born out of signs of the times. “Carter was president,” the author recalls via Zoom from Hawaii. “He’s a good guy, but he wasn’t a great president. The Arab oil embargo was on, so there were big lines at gas stations. Bank interest rates were 18 percent. Can you imagine that? And in addition, the Japanese bought Rockefeller Center. When you bought something—you bought a cup—look at the bottom: ‘Made in Japan.’ Japan was seen as eating our lunch.”
“Now China’s eating our lunch,” he says, drawing parallels to today. “Price of gas is very high. The trust in the government is low. There’s a lot of conflict. But the bottom line was, and this may even sound familiar: ‘This is not the country that I grew up in. We should go somewhere else.’ In the late ’70s, people were saying that, and that kind of is the bottom line today.”
Theroux was living in London at the time, but had traveled to the jungles of Honduras for inspiration, “and when I came back I was full of beans.” He also visited China, which at the time was in a poor, unmodernized state. “People [were] making simple things like bottles, thermos jugs, bicycles. I thought: This is kind of the Allie Fox dream, of mending things, making do.” He dedicated the book to “Charlie Fox” (in quotes)—a reference to Moritz Thomsen, who was an American writer Theroux met in Ecuador. “His stories about his father were terrifying,” Theroux says. (Thomsen called his father tyrannical and an “outrageous catastrophe” who once tortured the family dog to death.) “But that actually started me down, and then I started thinking about fathers; I thought about Jim Jones, Huck Finn’s father, my father ... even I as a father.”
Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Mosquito Coast is narrated by a 14-year-old boy. “If it was Allie Fox writing the book, it would be a totally different book,” says Theroux, “because he’d be ranting all the time. There’s something wrong with Allie Fox. He’s cracked. But you wouldn’t get it if he was telling the story.” The author was especially captivated by Jones, the charismatic cult leader who lured a bunch of Americans to Jonestown, Guyana, and staged a mass suicide in the 1970s. He “was obviously a father figure. They called him ‘Father.’ He was kind of a ranter. He had an opinion about everything. He was someone who was saying, ‘We’re not going to change the government. The system is just against us. It’s not working. So what we’ll do is we’ll leave.’ In a way, Allie Fox is building a utopian community. Like most utopian communities, it comes apart.”
Allie relocates his family to the “Mosquito Coast” of Belize and purchases a junk town, where he ingeniously builds a thriving agrarian community around “Fat Boy,” his ice-making contraption. “In his rejection of America, Fox is of course a classic American type,” The New York Times wrote in its review of the book, “and his will to create a new world for himself would have been understood at Brook Farm or Walden Pond or in any frontier homestead.” Things go great for a while in this Swiss Family Robinson–style paradise ... but Allie’s megalomania only swells, and he begins to oppress everyone around him, including his family, while spiraling into his own Heart of Darkness. “Theroux,” the Times wrote, “clearly admires Fox’s very American refusal to settle for less than his mind can conceive of, but he also makes us feel an equally American anxiety about the hubris of imagination.”
The book was snapped up for $250,000 by producer Saul Zaentz (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) in 1982, “back in the ancient era when serious literary books were being adapted for movies,” Schrader laments. Producer Jerome Hellman hired Schrader, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, who by then was also a successful director, to adapt Theroux’s novel for the screen—with Jack Nicholson set to play Allie Fox. “Jack was perfect for the character,” says Schrader. “And because Saul had made, or felt he had made Jack’s career with Cuckoo’s Nest, he felt that Jack owed him one, and he lowballed Jack’s price. Jack said, ‘Fuck you, Saul.’ And Saul said, ‘Fuck you, Jack.’ Now, it was a perfect collaboration, but egos got involved, and that’s that. He ended up paying Harrison Ford the same salary that Jack was asking. It got to be a pissing contest, and Jack did not want to be seen as an obligation. And obviously it would have been a much better film with Jack.”
Ford says he was unaware that Nicholson was the first choice for Allie: “Doesn’t surprise me. Sounds like a good idea.”
Everything happens for a reason, though: As Fox, Ford delivers one of the best performances of his career. The role weaponizes his inherent likability and charm, making him a fun, seductive center of gravity and force of will even amid his reprehensibility. You can believe that Helen Mirren’s “Mother” and River Phoenix’s Charlie would follow this man to the ends of the earth. With his heroic good looks and that trademark, Han Solo half-grin, Ford’s diatribes register with reason—and humor. “I loved the language of the book,” says Ford. “That was one of the real attractions for me.”
Schrader retained much of Theroux’s dialogue word for word, lines like Allie musing that it would take courage to go live in the jungle: “Not just ordinary gumption, but four o’clock in the morning courage.” On the boat to Central America, Allie spars with a smarmy Christian missionary played by Andre Gregory. “I’ve tinkered with the Bible,” Allie says at mealtime one day, “but it doesn’t work.” Later the reverend hands Allie a “blue jeans Bible,” complete with a dorky pocket on the front cover, and Allie cheerfully says: “Hey, look at this, kids! It’s just what I’ve been warning you about. ‘Of making many books, there is no end. And much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ Ecclesiastes.” The reverend parries: “There are many rooms in my father’s house. But I am the door.” And Allie, through that wry smirk, responds: “Well don’t slam it on the way out.”
“It was enjoyable imagining him just taking a subject and ranting about it,” Theroux says of the character. “And he’s always got the answer. The Bible? ‘I know things about the Bible that no one else knows, and there’s parts of the Bible that no one’s read.’ Or invention, or progress, or whatever it is. Sometimes I’d be lying in bed and I’d have an Allie Fox rant in my mind, and so I put that in.” In preparation for his movie, Weir had someone print up all of Allie’s rants as a kind of pamphlet, which he called The Thoughts of Allie Fox. “I read it,” says Theroux, “and I thought: This is great. I must have been a genius when I wrote that.”
Weir, who had just directed Ford as an undercover detective in Amish country in Witness, says by email that the “difficult, bombastic, funny, brilliant know-it-all intrigued me from the start. You could shift from liking to loathing in a few pages. ... I used to think of him like a character escaped from a Shakespeare play—a basically good man, whose personality fault line under extreme pressure widens and cracks.”
Weir saw Allie as the opposite of the classic Western protagonist, the “man with a past” who ultimately becomes a savior to others or redeems himself through noble action. “Harrison as an actor was in this tradition of the American hero,” says Weir, “so there was considerable risk of the public rejecting this older Shakespearean hero.”
As the film progresses, Allie becomes more of the unhinged Jim Jones in the jungle, crashing into—and creating—increasing threats to his family’s survival, but burning every bridge of friendship and safety behind him in a psychological descent. It’s arguably the darkest, most twisted, most complicated character Ford has ever played—but he insists it didn’t take much forethought. “I just tried it on piece by piece,” he says, “a little bit of costume here, a little bit of dialogue there, a relationship to another actor or actress, and guidance from Peter, and put it all together. Sometimes you plan a lot, and sometimes you just put on the clothes. In this case, I think it was just a matter of putting on the clothes—you know, going for it.”
Ford recently rewatched the film for the first time in 35 years, and was full of praise for his castmates. It was the first time he acted with 15-year-old Phoenix, who went on to play Ford’s younger self in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. “River was such an important part of the movie, such a critical lens to see Allie through,” Ford says. “He was an incredible kid. Really sweet. And, I mean, so talented. So natural. Great, gracious kid.” (Ethan Hawke, who lost the part of Chris in Stand by Me to Phoenix, also auditioned to play Charlie Fox. “Seeing your friend at a screen test for the same role is never fun,” Hawke says by email. “The only victory came when I got Dead Poets and he didn’t!!!”)
Ford recalls the experience of making the film in the jungles of Belize as pure adventure. “I loved it,” he says, chuckling. “It required very little imagination, because we really were there. ... I was living in a boat offshore, a wooden yacht that I brought down from Biloxi, Mississippi, to live on. Because the only other choice was the hotel at that time, and it was pretty funky. But every day I’d get up and take a boat into the market on Haulover Creek and pay somebody five bucks to watch the boat all day. Yeah, it was a really neat experience.”
The film’s reviews and box office receipts were tepid—“I always thought that the idea of commercial success was simply to allow you the option to do things that you wanted to do,” says Ford—but it wasn’t without its diehard fans. For Neil Cross, the British screenwriter and creator of Luther, it would have been sacrilege to remake Weir’s film. When producer Dante Di Loreto asked him whether he wanted to adapt the book as a TV series, the writer said: “Absolutely not. Not because I don’t love it, but because I do love it.”
“Mosquito Coast was the first book of his that I read,” Cross adds. “I knew that the process of adaptation requires a certain degree of objectivity and reinvention, and to some extent, you could say, disrespect. You have to force yourself to disrespect the text.”
But as Cross articulated all of his objections, he began discovering solutions. He would take the bones of Theroux’s story and reinvent Allie Fox for the 2020s. His Allie remains an American contrarian and individualist but, living in the age of Google and Edward Snowden, he’s concerned with “liberty through privacy.” This Allie is living off the grid and accessing the dark web, and he doesn’t leave America on his own volition—he flees across the border to Mexico with his family because the FBI is after him. Driven by series director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), this high-octane, action-packed, cartel-and-hitmen iteration of Theroux’s story has strong touches of Breaking Bad and Sicario—although one of Wyatt’s prime touchpoints was, surprisingly, another River Phoenix movie from the late ’80s: Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty. The 1988 film is about an American family living with false identities and constantly relocating, on the lam for a sin committed by the parents a long time ago; it also recoupled Phoenix and Martha Plimpton, who played Charlie’s would-be girlfriend in Weir’s Mosquito Coast.
Paul Theroux, an executive producer on the new series, swears “it was the opposite of nepotism” that his nephew was cast as Allie Fox. The Leftovers star was brought up in “blue sky casting” discussions once the film rights were obtained, says Cross, who was terrified when he learned the actor wanted to meet him for coffee. “There was a potential minefield in this meeting,” the writer says, “inasmuch that I had this very long, very personal relationship to the novel, and Justin had a relationship to the novel that not only was longer—but he knew the novelist. And not only did he know the novelist—he knew the family members upon whom Allie was based.” The actor understood Cross’s fears of adapting such a beloved book: “It’s like being handed a Fabergé egg,” Theroux says, “you don’t want to be the asshole that drops it.”
Justin Theroux can’t recall when he first met his uncle (“I would imagine he met me when I was, you know, still doing dumps in diapers”), but he does remember reading the novel and seeing Weir’s film—and recognizing Allie Fox. There are “huge elements of my grandfather in this character,” he says, as well as his uncle Paul. The actor describes his grandfather as “very thrifty, very moral,” and says the scenes of Allie taking his kids to the dump to scrounge for spare parts and clothes were things he literally did with the family patriarch. “So I had those voices in my head. I know what my grandfather sounds like. I know turns of phrase that he would use.”
Justin Theroux (who pronounces his last name The-ROE) asked his uncle (who pronounces the family name The-ROO) for additional insights into the character, and the novelist recommended he make his own copy of The Thoughts of Allie Fox, which Justin did. The actor says he had to spend the past two years trying to forget Ford’s performance. “It is interesting in retrospect now, having seen our show—and I don’t want to get too forensic about it—but we’ve probably landed at some of the same conclusions about the character,” he says. “Not necessarily in how to play him, but just how he presents. What we both did is that sort of forward-leaning, finger-in-the-face way of addressing people. The conviction.” Like with Ford, this 21st century Allie Fox capitalizes on Theroux’s good looks and innate charm and the audience’s affection for him. “I’d love to take the compliment, as I’m sure Harrison would,” he says, “but I think it’s really built into the DNA of the character that he has to be charming. It’s one of the things that makes him very fun to play, but also compelling to watch.”
Many critics of Weir’s film cited Allie’s unlikability, like Roger Ebert, who wrote, “Some kinds of bores you will tolerate, and other kinds you will not. The Mosquito Coast has the misfortune to be about the second kind of bore—about a man who is zealous in the pursuit of his obsessions long, long after they have ceased to interest anyone else.” Sheila Benson of the L.A. Times sort of agreed, except about losing interest: “Fox’s bedrock obnoxiousness makes you want to hit him with a board. ... But he’s an irresistible force on the screen; and Harrison Ford’s power—even with his back to the camera, even when we can’t read his face—is terrifying.”
Paul Theroux has heard this criticism before, and is ready with a rebuke. “Is going to a movie about liking someone, or reading a book about liking someone?” he sighs. “You know, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment—how likable is he? He’s a criminal! But he’s a great character. So I would say: Does it matter?”
Ford puts it similarly: “You don’t play likable or unlikable. You play story.” And for whatever it’s worth, Schrader adds, “If it would have been Jack, they wouldn’t have said that.”
In many ways, Justin Theroux’s take on Allie is a little more sympathetic, mostly because this first season catches him early in his arc. “We’ve made the choice to start with the earlier incarnation of Jim Jones, rather than the latter,” Wyatt says. “The work and research I did about Jim Jones, which is something that I’m sure Paul [Theroux] knew in spades, just dug up this idea and this realization that Jim Jones was an immense pillar of his community in his earlier days, and very charismatic, empathetic, charming, brilliant, genius ... that’s the fascinating aspect of genius—it’s not that far away from mental imbalance.”
The series retains lines of dialogue and some core narrative details—in the first episode, for example, Allie demonstrates his “Fat Boy” invention, and he and Charlie go rummaging in a dump for parts—but it’s a completely different animal. Where Weir’s film floated down a sleepy river like a drugged fever dream set to Maurice Jarre’s washy synth score, the new show whips along with acrobatic, aerial photography, full of bullets and car crashes. When Justin Theroux echoes lines by Ford’s Allie Fox, he often says them while running. It’s an intentional departure from the source, which may or may not work for fans of the book or the 1986 masterpiece.
“I’m not sure Allie would be overjoyed that the new Apple TV+ adaptation of Mosquito Coast has buried much of the character’s self-aggrandizing ideology like so many iPods filling so many landfills,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg. “It’s a show whose very existence is itself a cautionary tale—mirroring the themes the story tackles—about how the American marketplace reshapes anything with a maverick spirit into a more commercially recognizable form.”
The always-opinionated Schrader can relate. “Apparently they’re redoing American Gigolo,” he says. “They called me about five years ago and said they wanted to do it, and I said to them, ‘That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.’ Fortunately, [Martin] Scorsese and I have really fought over the years to keep anyone from putting their hands on Taxi Driver. But, boy, there have been attempts.”
Ford, though, is a little more gracious, and answers in a way that only reinforces the enduring mystique of Allie Fox. “It’s a different time, and it’s a different context,” he says. “I’m sure there’s plenty of juice in the story.”
Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Find him at timgreiving.com.