Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 5, 2007)
One of the most successful big screen adaptations of a Stephen King work, 1990ís Misery introduces us to famous novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan). When he finishes his newest opus and leaves his remote mountain cabin to deliver it, Sheldon hits inclement weather and crashes his car.
Sheldon passes out but local resident Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) comes to his rescue. His self-proclaimed ďnumber-one fanĒ, Annie nurses the severely injured Sheldon back to health. All goes well until she reads his latest in his series of novels about Misery Chastain. Annie adores these tomes but goes over the edge when she discovers that Sheldon kills the character in the new book.
Annie already showed some signs of mental instability, but she completely loses it at this point. While local sheriff Buster (Richard Farnsworth) searches for the missing Sheldon, Annie grows nuttier and develops a strong fantasy attachment to Paul. The movie follows his attempts to escape for her deepening insanity.
A viewer would have to see Misery as one of Kingís most personal works given the obvious similarities between the author and the Sheldon character. Itís awfully tough to see it as anything other than a poison pen letter to Kingís more obsessive fans.
Whether or not one reads Kingís autobiographical viewpoint into Misery, the film provides one of the authorís most compelling tales. Of course, King didnít work in a vacuum, and the movieís pedigree helps it. Behind the camera, we find Rob Reiner as director and William Goldman as screenwriter. Both collaborate well here, as the film forms a nice union of script and direction.
I think Reiner remains best at comedies, but that sensibility actually allows for a looseness behind Misery that a more traditional horror director might lack. Reiner creates a perverse humor beneath the insanity and nastiness. These elements allow the darkness to work even better. An unrelentingly cruel tale would get old, while the occasional moments of cynical levity open up matters and dig at us more. No one will call this flick a laugh riot, but its dark humor gives it a strange tension it otherwise might lack.
Caan and Bates fill probably about 95 percent of the movieís screen time, so their work becomes crucial. Bates earned a Best Actress Oscar for her turn as Annie. We donít often see performers rewarded for films of this sort, though history would repeat just a year later when Jodie Foster won the same prize for The Silence of the Lambs, another genre effort.
While Iím not sure Bates deserved such a high honor, I do like her work as Annie. One could easily make Annie a broad, cartoony personality. Those elements exist in her makeup anyway, and someone else couldíve delivered a performance devoid of any reality or nuance.
Bates manages to avoid those pitfalls. She takes Annieís absurd side and adds a layer of real darkness. Rather than offer a one-dimensional nutbag, Batesí Annie becomes something nastier and more believable. She does this without irony as she buys into the role with full conviction.
Caan gets the less showy of the two parts, but he plays Sheldon well. I like the contrast between Annieís exaggerated wide-eyed fan and the more cynical, jaded Sheldon. Of course, the differences between the two make the path they take all the more delicious, as we expect a tough guy like Caan to easily be able to make mincemeat of a tubby softie like Bates. The fact that she almost always maintains the upper hand creates a great tension as we wait to see where the film will go.
Misery lacks the broad drama or scope of many other King offerings, and I think its simplicity is what makes it special. This is a work that could actually succeed as a stage play, though the movie still feels like a fully realized piece of cinema. The film works on all levels to become a winner.