Misery (1990)

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Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by William Goldman

Rated R

Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes
James Caan as Paul Sheldon
Richard Farnsworth as Buster
Frances Sternhagen as Virginia
Lauren Bacall as Marcia Sindell

In Stephen King’s superb 1999 memoir On Writing, he revealed the alcohol and drug abuse that afflicted him during the years in which he wrote some of best-known novels. Rob Reiner’s Misery, adapted from King’s 1987 bestseller, is an incredibly effective take on the source material. I read Misery when I was 13-years-old, and of course my parents didn’t approve of my reading a Stephen King novel, but hey - at least I was reading. King’s state of mind at the time of writing the book is crucial to an overall understanding to appreciate of the book and this film adaptation.

I liked the book, found it interesting and maddening at the same. It was a great psychological thriller, interrupted by bizarre interludes of the book-within-a-book setup. Reiner’s film maintained the suspense and gallows humor, while eliminating some of the over-the-top gore that grossed me out. It’s one of Reiner’s best films, and it provided a tremendous comeback for James Caan. And, of course, it made way for a star-making, Oscar-winning performance by Kathy Bates, in the role she’s most identified with. I found the film more interesting than the book, largely due to the character Bates brought to life.

Caan is a bestselling novelist named Paul Sheldon. He has made a household name for himself by writing about the romantic adventures of a heroine named Misery Chastain. Wanting to explore his gritty and more creative side, Paul decides to kill off Misery and begin his career anew. His first post-Misery novel is a raw and unflinching look at inner-city kids, based on his own childhood. Think Nicholas Sparks transitioning into Elmore Leonard or Spike Lee. He has a ritual of finishing his books at a reclusive Colorado mountain lodge, and after he finishes he gets in his car, heads down the mountain in a blizzard, and is critically injured in a car wreck.

He is rescued by his Greatest Fan, a former nurse named Annie Wilkes (Bates). Resourceful and physically imposing, Annie is nonetheless chirpy and eccentric, but seemingly harmless. Paul is gravely injured, and he is thankful to Annie for rescuing and tending to him. Coincidentally, the completion of Paul’s new book coincides with the release of the latest Misery novel. Unbeknownst to Annie and Misery-loving fans, it is to be the final book. While Paul recovers, Annie (who has noted the phone lines are down, and the roads are barely driveable) picks up the new Misery book. Initially thrilled, she is later devastated and enraged that Paul has killed off Misery. She demands he resurrect her heroine, but only first after destroying his unpublished manuscript. It is now that Sheldon realizes his caretaker is dangerously unbalanced.

It’s easy to see why this film made Bates a star. She is deserving of every one of the accolades she earned for Misery, not least because they have fulfilled the promise of a career that includes more award-worthy work in Doloroes Claiborne, Primary Colors, About Schmidt, and acclaimed work in television programs like Harry’s Law and American Horror Story. Bates’ incarnation of Annie is more effective than the character in the book. Circling back to my mention of King’s revealed dependency on drugs and alcohol, he noted Annie was a metaphor for his drug addiction. She made him claustrophobic, isolated, and terrorized, similar feelings of helplessness to a person in the throes of a chemical dependency.

Caan wisely underplays his performance, and it’s the right decision. Paul Sheldon is verbally taciturn given his predicament, and much of the strength of Caan’s performance is the physicality and facial expressions, giving us a glimpse into the terror he is experiencing, while marveling at his realistic resourcefulness in an effort to survive. Bates has the showier performance, and Misery is essentially a two-person show. It has been adapted into a stage play, and I can imagine how well it might play to audiences from a stage.

Ultimately, Misery works a highly-charged thriller, punctuated by two excellent performances and deft direction by Reiner. He’s the right director, capturing King’s terror and the comic relief he has mastered in films like The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. King himself has named it as one of his favorite film adaptations of his work.

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