Sunday, November 17, 2019

King Week: Everyone's a critic


In which Halloween-related marathoning has resulted in reviews of several spooky movies from the mind of the world's favorite horror author, Stephen King.

MISERY

1990
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by William Goldman (based on the novel by Stephen King)

Spoiler alert: high


Misery is, maybe, the most self-contained of the Stephen King adaptations.  It's also one of the very few that feels like it's come without compromise, either by leaving out half a tree's worth of texture, or by leaving in the sometimes-questionable whimsies of the author himself.  And this isn't even actually the case: it's reasonable to assume that the 107 minute film must somewhat compress the 370 page novel; and it puts a triumphalist Hollywood gloss onto a much more cynical ending.  Even so, Misery feels straightforward as anything, like it was born a screenplay (or a stageplay, and there have been some notable productions, most recently one by William Goldman, the very screenwriter of Misery-the-film).  This impression, I imagine, is in no small part due to sheer purity: it's an unabashed thriller that thrives within (and because of) the sharp constraints it places upon itself; and, unlike a whole lot of other King stories, it doesn't so much as gesture toward the supernatural, satisfied instead with all the human-scale horror it can dig out of a series of bombastic one-sided two-handers between the two people who are, for all intents and purposes, the only two characters in the movie.

But the straightforwardness is nothing but emphasized by the whisper-quiet style of the thing.  And so, whether it's treated as a weakness or a strength, the consensus on Misery is that its adaptation was realized within the plainest-jain aesthetic possible from director Rob Reiner (trying his hand at King horror after a successful go at King drama, with Stand By Me); and Reiner's direction, alongside Barry Sonnenfield's cinematography (in his last turn as someone else's DP rather than a director in his own right) and Robert Leighton's editing (his sixth collaboration of fifteen with Reiner), is dedicated entirely to servicing the psychological gamesmanship at the center of his film and the two performances that give it life.  The showiest thing about it winds up being some awful post-production car-crash slow-motion, courtesy second unit cinematographer Gary Kibbe (best known as Carpenter's DP after Dean Cundey left him for greener pastures, and merely jobbing here).

In case it wasn't clear, put me down under "it's a strength"—if I don't usually count Misery in the top ranks of King adaptations, I'm presently at a loss to explain why—but it's hard not to notice that Misery is constructed almost entirely out of well-lit shots filmed next to a picture window in a single room, the vast majority of these being close-ups and medium close-ups of either a looming Kathy Bates or James Caan, whom we find cowering in a bed and, sometimes, crawling in pain upon the floor.  And as there are only so many ways to interestingly film two people in a single room (even when the scenario does permit the action to extend to the floor, and, on occasion, to other rooms in the same house), it's no surprise that Reiner and Sonnenfeld run out.  That's where Leighton comes in, making a positive advantage out of his collaborators' lack of options, with shots that echo each other through time, ultimately taking recourse to the kind of full-on montage that underlines the oppressive sameness of our hero's hellish day-after-day.


I expect you already know who and what put our hero in that room, but for form's sake, Misery is the story of how novelist Paul Sheldon (Caan), after putting the finishing touches on his new book at a remote Colorado hotel, started off on the journey back to New York to deliver the manuscript to his publisher (Lauren Bacall, for no particular reason), and rapidly found he wasn't going anywhere.  When his brakes just-so-happen to fail in the midst of a furious snowstorm, and his Mustang flies off the side of a mountain, someone's already there to save him.  This is one Annie Wilkes (Bates), and, as she'll confirm herself after he regains consciousness, Annie is Paul's number one fan.  Annie's a nurse, and she's used her skills to bring him back from the precipice of death.  (Annie's also fairly stout, which I wouldn't mention except it's such an important part of the mise-en-scene that it seems stupid to overlook it, and that's how she hoisted Paul up a steep hill and to her car in the first place.)

Annie gushes over her love for Paul's series of historical romance novels starring a certain "Misery Chastain," which can't help but discomfit Paul, since prior to writing his new book (some manner of noirish crime thriller), he'd just put an end to Misery and her adventures, having killed her off in his latest (and last) Misery novel, out of a boredom with the character and his frustration over a career defined by bodice-ripper trash.  Annie doesn't especially like the new direction he's taken—she's shocked and appalled by how much swearing Paul uses in his new book—but that's nothing compared to how she reacts when she gets ahold of the last Misery story.  When she's finished reading that, she lets Paul in on a secret: the roads are fine and the phones are fine, but he's not leaving, and she tasks him with a new assignment—a new Misery novel that corrects the little problem of her favorite character being dead.

Maybe the most noticeable "flaw" in Misery, then, is how instantaneously it lets us know that Annie Wilkes is totally bugnuts crazy (she starts ranting and raving almost immediately), which somewhat negates the sympathetic impact of Paul discovering precisely how much harm she intends him, since—even compensating for our obvious awareness of what Misery is about—it's fairly clear within about thirty or forty seconds that this isn't Paul's convalescence bed but a torture chamber.  Then again, this does lets us get to the good stuff right away, this being what amounts to a series of escalating vignettes where Annie establishes her infinite power over Paul, while Paul's only hope for survival are his wits and his growing understanding of Annie's psychological peculiarities.

And peculiar she is indeed, particularly as given life by Bates, who'd spent twenty years on the margins of movies until Misery—"never an ingenue," in her words, which is a pity—and she'd made her bones mainly as a stage actress in the interval.  This isn't always the case with Bates, but you can absolutely see that stage training here: Bates' Annie is extravagantly theatrical, a bit of a parody of rural American feminity to be honest, blatantly unbalanced and belting out her cornpone madness with the volume and conviction of somebody trying to make sure even the back seats still get their money's worth.  It's certainly not subtle, and one could go as far as to call it the most obvious possible way of playing this particular psychotic stalker, but that doesn't mean it's not perfect, and, in every apoplexis, it's exactly the performance Misery required, in that she bowls Caan off the screen.


This is particularly the case as Caan plays Paul in maybe the least-obvious manner possible (truthfully, as deserved as Bates' Oscar was, I think Caan is doing the more careful acting here), mixing his victim's genuine anguish with an awareness of both the absurdity of the situation and the need to keep a level head.  Caan, who plays Paul less as terrified or desparate except in the moments of physical conflict, provides a baseline to Paul that's better described as "bitchy and annoyed," allowing us to understand that Paul is resisting in little ways, seeing how much of a tetchy tone or how much withering sarcasm he can get away with, which turns out to be a great deal, because we're supposed to think Annie is simple-minded, though I believe the correct reading of the film is that Annie just doesn't need to care.  In any event, Paul's resort to grade-school-level shitheelery is about the only outlet he gets to have; well, that, and making elaborate, meticulously-planned attempts on Annie's life, and there's certainly enough information presented by the end for one to imagine that the heart-in-your-throat ways she "accidentally" thwarts death were always her own way of mocking Paul's self-impressed ingenuity.  It's worth mentioning how Misery flips the stock abuse scenario, and puts Paul, for lack of a better way to phrase it, in the woman's position, physically outmatched and forced to use "women's" weapons, like emotional manipulation, sex appeal, and poison, sometimes all three in combination.

But the main thing here is the plight of the writer, consumed by the incarnation of his own body of work.  It's fun to think of King as using romance novels as a stand-in for his own disfavored genre.  (And somebody on the movie of his book, if maybe just a set decorator, must've had the same fun idea: the glimpses we get of Paul's "real" novel suggest it's at least the equal to the Misery series in hackishness.  It ends on an ellipsis, just like all great works of fine literature do.)  Being a film, however, Misery's inevitably going to be perceived as the trial of the filmmaker, too.  It's hard to separate this from Misery's keener thrills, because everything's all driving toward the same point in Misery—even the third "main" character, the diligent but fundamentally-useless sheriff (Richard Farnsworth), is more-or-less played as an extended dark joke about how, in a post-Shining world, we know he's going to eat it—but some of the most intense stuff in the whole movie arrives as Annie presents her studio notes on Paul's new Misery manuscript.  It is, in any event, Annie's single best monologue, in a role that's practically all monologues, when she holds forth on writing, using 1950s movie serials as her example, and articulates the demands an audience makes on any author to play fair with their time and attention.  Of course, the best gag in an often-hilarious movie comes when Paul rewrites Misery's resurrection and, though by no means less ridiculous, the new draft better conforms to Annie's generic expectations, and therefore she loves it.

The line between love and hate is thin in Misery, and while foremost a cracking thriller (otherwise, who could care?), it's a fascinating look at the divide between creators and fans, and the way that things an artist did for a paycheck can, once they escape into the world, become something much more important.  So it's about the jealousy and resentment that arises from that: when somebody else has supplanted your own identity with their tossed-off daydreams, and they don't even give a shit, it's only natural to get a little mad about it.  Of course, it's also about the jealousy and resentment that authors throw right back: they so rarely get to enjoy their work as their fans do, and to some degree have to hold their audiences in contempt just to get through the process without being paralyzed.  And above all it's about the suffering of having no choice but to write something you despise.

I do regret that the ending of King's novel wasn't retained (in the book, Paul burns a decoy, keeping his new Misery manuscript and making a mint off it; and while we're on the subject of changes, as brutal as the film's hobbling sequence is, one wouldn't hate seeing a visual version of the book's much more gruesome scene, and I'm very unfond of Reiner's decision to not show the second foot).  I regret also that King and Goldman alike decided to take a page from the slasher playbook, feeling the need to have Annie spring back to life like a common Michael Myers.  (Everything to do with Annie's pig, also named Misery, is a complete waste of time, and that does include the pewter figurine version Paul uses as a bludgeon.)  But there's still something amazing about the full-throated cry of a put-upon creator who takes his typewriter and bashes his number one fan's head in with it, and that hasn't quite gotten less resonant in the 29 years since.

Score: 9/10

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