Misery (1990)

12 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Misery” is the film adaptation of the popular Stephen King novel that played to the obsessiveness of artists’ fans. Let’s imagine that you are very famous for your work—in this case, you’re an author—and you happen to be in a situation where you’re with someone who states is his “number-one fan.” Man, the phrase alone is creepy. “Number-one fan” indicates a real obsessiveness to you because of your work. You’re admittedly flattered for a while, until you realize just how much this obsessiveness goes for being a “number-one fan” and you realize that maybe you’d rather like to bid a polite farewell and continue on.

But in “Misery,” adapted to the screen by director Rob Reiner (his second Stephen King adaptation after the wonderful “Stand by Me”) and screenwriter William Goldman, the author Paul Sheldon can’t leave.

Paul (James Caan) is a successful author, whose series of novels centered around a popular character named Misery Chastain has garnered a great deal of recognition. But feeling that he’s had enough of writing these books, he has just finished a manuscript of a different novel, while up in the mountains. But just when he leaves, a blizzard hits and he is in a car accident that breaks both of his legs.

Paul wakes up in a bed in the remote home of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a seemingly kind and gentle nurse that nurtures Paul to health. She informs him that the roads are closed, that the phone lines are down, that she’s been nursing him for a couple of days while he was unconscious…and that she’s his “number-one fan.” Paul doesn’t really have a problem with this, since Annie has been nothing but kind to him and is flattered to hear her kind compliments toward his creativity.

But soon enough, just as Paul starts to get a little curious about how obsessive this woman is (she even has a pig named after Paul’s central character), Annie shows a dark side just as she realizes that Paul has killed off Misery in the final book. She turns from kind, gentle soul to shouting, crazed psychopath just like that. “You murdered my Misery!” she exclaims in anger. And just after that outburst, she lets Paul know in a matter-of-fact tone, “Don’t even think about anyone coming for you…because I never called them. Nobody knows you’re here. And you better pray nothing happens to me…because if I die, you die.”

As Paul realizes that his life is in the hands of a sure lunatic, and he can’t escape because of his broken legs, Annie forces Paul to burn his new manuscript and write a new Misery novel, bringing the character back to life and pleasing her. And he has to ease himself out of certain situations in order to keep Annie from going crazy…especially when something inevitably brutal starts to occur.

“Misery” is a tense thriller that plays well with this situation. The film has a good deal of chilling moments with this scenario, mostly having to do with Annie’s constant moving back-and-forth between personalities. She can be an angel at one point, and then a demon the next. But then she switches back again. This is what makes the performance of Kathy Bates so frightening. It’s not that Annie is a psycho-in-disguise (in fact, the shouting can go a bit over-the-top on certain occasions)—it’s the fact that anything can set her off. You never know when she’s going to do something mad, but you’re constantly on edge whenever she seems nice, because you just know that the transition is going to come again.

The film also gives us a character that could possibly be Paul’s rescuer, in a subplot involving the local sheriff named Buster (Richard Farnsworth), who believes there may something more going on here than the media can cause to believe. They think he’s dead; Buster has a different idea. Can he fit all the pieces of the puzzle together before it’s too late? Richard Farnsworth has a warm, friendly screen presence that makes him easy to like. Other supporting characters are Buster’s wife, nicely played by Frances Sternhagen), and Paul’s literary agent (Lauren Becall, in a credited “special appearance”). They all have their little moments.

But what it all comes down to in the acting department is the performances by Kathy Bates and James Caan, since the characters of Annie and Paul are the central conflicted characters. Bates’ role is undeniably tricky, as I’ve described, since her differing personalities switch to and fro—she owns it big time. But James Caan takes a role that is relatively simple—either being bed-ridden or in a wheelchair while reacting to his captor’s behavior. Caan doesn’t play it like that. He plays it even riskier—playing it brighter than you’d expect. This is a smart man who knows he has a lot to go through and relies on his limitations and wits in order to try and get himself out of this situation. Caan and Bates make a great acting duo.

“Misery” is also great as a work of craftsmanship. The cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld makes the whole film watchable, due to the focusing of little things in contrast to the big things. Every shot in this movie has purpose. Rob Reiner, as director, and William Goldsman, as screenwriter, bring about a certain element of personal gain from this story, which is pretty much all Stephen King, and it’s surprising to see exactly how much the two are able to capture and bring forth to the screen.

All of these elements and a good story help us to pay attention to “Misery” the whole way through. It’s involving, tense, sometimes gruesome (especially the film’s most horrific scene, in which Annie “hobbles” Paul’s ankles with a sledgehammer to make sure he never escapes), and very well-acted and well-executed. “Misery” is an engaging thriller that works on almost every level.

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