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Film Review: Misery

Starring: Kathy Bates, James Caan, Richard Farnsworth
Directed by: Rob Reiner

Screenwriter William Goldman applies his mastery of the clean, lean literary adaptation to this Stephen King penned shocker. Apart from the daft fist-fight ending, Goldman works well with Misery (1990) director Rob Reiner. They let the story unfold at a relaxed pace with cleverly integrated subplots to keep things moving. The narrative is steered by the health of its ailing protagonist, novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan). The better he gets, the worse his situation becomes.

Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) wears a grey wool pinafore dress as she tends to Paul for the first time following his accident. The pinafore, like the domestic apron on which it is based, is customary working attire for a nurse. Annie used to be a nurse and still sees herself as one. As with all of society’s most diabolical felons, Annie does not perceive her past crimes as anything wrong. She cares for Paul in her traditional nursing garb for all the sense of authority and implied compassion it affords her. It is her uniform for ‘healing’ the sick; as far as Annie is concerned, why shouldn’t she wear it?

This film marked something of a career resurgence for James Caan who had been languishing in mediocre cop thrillers for the latter half of the 1980s. Caan is calm and impressive here; his expression when he realises Annie will discover he has just killed her literary heroine ‘Misery Chastain’ plays out as horribly telling on repeat viewings.

Paul Sheldon is a successful, yet disillusioned writer who having finished his final Misery novel while on retreat in the Colorado Mountains, skids off the road and crashes his car during a flash blizzard. He is rescued by Annie Wilkes, ‘his number one fan’, and taken to her isolated farmhouse to recuperate. From here on in the story unfolds as a battle of wits and wills – Caan as the phallic-less male, Bates as the domineering matriarch.

Misery remains Kathy Bates’ most famous role by a mile. This is no quibble; she doesn’t grandstand, preferring instead sudden bursts of repressed spite which are terrifyingly hard to predict. One minute she is enthusiastically childish about her chapter plays, the next she has exploded in a fit of unpredictable rage. Bates portrays Annie as someone with absolutely no sense of her own monstrosity.

And this is why we can love her; she is evil in tweed but she doesn’t know it. When Annie looks in the mirror she sees “not the movie star type” who gets the blues when it’s raining. These blues eventually manifest in a cruelly impassive scene that is rightly remembered as a landmark of horror cinema. Misery proves it really does not pay to take anyone at face value.

© 2009 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.