As I’ve probably said once or twice on this blog, I’m a huge Stephen King fan. I won’t go so far as to call myself his number one fan, since there’s bound to be a lot creepier people out there with shrines containing various King body parts they’ve collected over the years, but I’m a pretty big one. Good, bad or otherwise I intend to have a complete collection of King first editions within my lifetime, and I intend to read most of them too (sorry, Dark Tower fans, but that series is really hard to get through at times). That being said, I want to note that a lot of the man’s books that are considered classics suffer from a number of problems. Most of them are overlong, are full of unnecessary details and subplots, and almost go out of their way to make their main characters unsympathetic. Many of his true classics, I think became classics due to high quality film adaptations that came out after they were released (seriously, would anyone actually know Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption if it weren’t for the movie?). Every so often, however, a film comes along that takes one of his legitimately great works and makes something special out of it with some capable grooming and direction. Misery is one of these movies.
Harlequin romance writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) gets in a car accident in the middle of a blizzard on a lonely mountain road in rural Colorado, badly breaking both of his legs. He wakes up soon after in the home of nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) who has saved his life and slowly tends him back to health. As it turns out, she’s his number one fan, and though she’s a bit odd at times, she seems mostly harmless at first. However, when she finds out that he’s killed off his signature character, Misery Chastain, in an effort to become a respected writer, Paul soon discovers the true sickness lurking in Annie’s mind. She’s keeping him prisoner, forcing him to bring Misery back from the grave, and she’ll go to any length to make this happen.
This is one of the rare movies I can watch over and over again and never get tired of. I might even dare to call perfect in every way. The writing and directing (from a surprisingly awesome with horror Rob Reiner) is superb, creating a tense, tight thriller that makes even something as simple as moving down a hallway into a breakneck scene of suspense. Trimming the fat from the novel, they shift the focus away from Paul’s battle with writers block and focus more on how the two of them have formed an unfortunate, symbiotic bond. Paul needs Annie to stay alive, and Annie needs what Paul is writing so she’ll stay sane. What was a tense and brooding book often broken up with pages of sappy harlequin romance is simplified into a battle of wits between two very intelligent, very forceful people, who refuse to back down from their ideals and desires.
And the performances… though there are a number of familiar faces in the supporting cast, almost all the credit in this movie has to go to the stellar performances of James Caan and Kathy Bates. Caan injects a sense of world-weary frustration into Paul Sheldon. He may start out the film as cocky, maybe even a bit unlikable, but as we begin to follow his various escape plans, and see how he learns to play Annie’s game of manipulation for his own survival, we get to see that he is truly a hero worth following. On the other hand, we have Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning performance of Annie Wilkes. I haven’t seen mental illness so compellingly portrayed in… well, maybe ever. Annie’s manic-depressive states are so real and so frightening, that you don’t know where she will go at any given time. In one moment, she’ll be squealing like a schoolgirl and gushing about her Liberace records. In another, she’ll break Paul’s feet with a sledgehammer while crying about how she’s doing this because she loves him. Her performance is at once terrifying and pitiable, as the rare moments we get to see the real, kind person that Annie could be, make her a truly sad villain to watch.
Misery is one of the rare horror films that the Academy didn’t ignore, and rightly so. I imagine the hobbling scene was more than enough to convince any Academy voters that spurning Kathy Bates would be a bad idea.
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-- Matt Carter
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