Here’s my second Halloweekend review! I’ve been kind of slow posting these, but Happy Halloween!!
Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates in her Oscar-winning role) tells romance author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) “I’m your number one fan” often throughout Rob Reiner’s 1990 film version of Stephen King’s Misery. She utters the phrase with a certain exaggerated gleefulness, with her smile broadly creasing her face, eyebrows raised just slightly too high. Each detail is just a little bit off to give the viewer (and Sheldon) pause even early on before the film delves deeply into its horror/thriller roots. It is a testament to Bates’ talent that Wilkes comes across as entirely believable, even in moments that could have easily devolved into camp. Her Wilkes has something of a Jeckyll and Hyde persona –– she suppresses her inner darkness underneath the guise of a quiet and unassuming woman of faith and simplicity. A retired nurse, she lives alone on the Colorado farm she helped run with her former husband. It is a life of solitude and late nights watching T.V. game shows and reading Sheldon’s popular Misery novels. The novels are the kinds of escapist period romantic thrillers that one finds in grocery store aisles emblazoned with the face of Fabio on their covers.
The books are an escape for both Wilkes and Sheldon, but in completely opposite ways. While Wilkes follows the travails of her favorite literary heroine in order to escape her mundane life, Sheldon has used the books as a way to achieve fame and financial success at the expense of his own artistic passions. He is a writer who aspires to create something beyond pop confections for the masses, and the film opens with him telling literary agent, Marcia Sindell (Hollywood great, Lauren Bacall) that his latest Misery is his last. He killed off the heroine, and hopes to head off to his favorite Colorado retreat to work on his magnum opus.
It is obvious that Reiner takes his directorial cues from Stanley Kubrick’s own King adaptation, The Shining, as the camera follows Sheldon’s car through winding wintry roads a la that earlier film’s opening. Like that of Kubrick’s film, the tone Reiner chooses for Misery is ice cold. The wintry setting, ominous score, and tight, jarring closeups of Bates and Caan all owe a lot to the visual aesthetic of Kubrick’s work. What differentiates the two films is the audience’s ability to empathize with Sheldon’s torments. He is painted as sympathetic right from the beginning. As soon as his car veers off the road, and he is rescued by Wilkes and bandaged up, he is quickly established as a character to be pitied. While Jack Nicholson’s unhinged writer in The Shining is a character nearly impossible to root for, Sheldon is a man who immediately gains our sympathy.
The film is rather simplistic and claustrophobic in its staging. Much of the action is confined to Wilkes’ guest room, where Sheldon remains bedridden for the majority of the film, with his legs propped up and arm in a sling. Like watching two great actors go head-to-head in a stage play, it is fascinating to watch Bates and Caan interact while in the room. As Wilkes gradually shifts from helpful nurse, to overeager fan, to raging tyrant, to horrific monster, the camera often zooms in on Sheldon, with Caan’s facial responses to the woman’s erratic behavior doubling for the audience’s reactions to what is going on before their very eyes. A subplot involving Richard Farnsworth as a local sheriff bent on finding Sheldon, adds some much-needed heart to the film, but it is the main conflict happening at Wilke’s farmhouse that holds the viewer’s attention.
The film really shifts gears once Wilkes gets to the end of Sheldon’s latest book and realizes her beloved literary heroine is no more. Admiration turns to anger, and anger feeds into a desire for revenge, as Wilkes goes from willing caretaker to unforgiving tormentor. Sheldon faces unexpected torments, both physical and psychological (one of the worst for him: being forced to set fire to the manuscript of his latest novel) at the hands of Wilkes. During the scenes of torture, Bates is absolutely riveting, as Reiner’s unforgiving camera zooms in harshly on her face, revealing an emotionless void. Since the novels offered her only escape from an uninteresting world, she views Misery’s death as a fatal blow, and Sheldon must pay at all costs. In many of these scenes, Bates is funny, sometimes-touching, but consistently terrifying, chewing the scenery with screenwriter William Goldman’s darkly funny lines.
When not inflicting physical pain upon him, Wilkes forces Sheldon to continue writing Misery’s story. Soon, the film becomes something of a Frankenstein tale, as Sheldon resurrects Misery from a literary corpse, returning to the genre he thought he had long-since departed. At this point, the film becomes something of a cautionary tale for artists who allow their audiences to dictate too clearly what narratives they are supposed to tell. For Sheldon, once he allows Wilkes to influence his stories, he loses a bit of his soul. By the end of the film, it becomes a fight not for his own physical survival, but for his survival as an artist.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. The film might have higher artistic intentions, but at the end of the day it is a completely satisfying thriller in the vein of Hitchcock’s venerable Psycho. But instead of Norman Bates in a dress, we get Kathy Bates wielding a sledge hammer…which is definitely scarier.
My rating: ***
“I’m your number one fan!”