Oooh baby is this a goodie.
Rob Reiner’s “Misery” is one of those movies that I’m more than happy to revisit by myself, but have also watched a number of times with people who haven’t seen it before just to see their reactions (and not just for THAT sledgehammer scene). As far as thrillers go, this is definitely up there as one of my favourites, and probably one of the best examples of how a simple idea, well executed, can be just as effective, powerful and terrifying as something like “Se7en” with all its twists and turns.
“Misery” is based off the Stephen King novel of the same name and he’s gone on record saying that Rob Reiner’s interpretation is one of his favourite renditions of his work from page to screen. I still get chills watching this, and the story goes that this is based off fan mail that King received himself as a successful writer. Popular pulp writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) has grown tired of pumping out sappy eighteenth century romance novels starring his heroine “Misery” and heads up to the snowy wilderness of Colorado to finish his new book. On his way home, his car skids off the icy roads and crashes, leaving him for dead, but luckily for him he’s rescued by local nurse Annie Wilks (Kathy Bates) and wakes up in her house with his legs in casts, the phone lines down and the roads blocked. Annie Wilks is Sheldon’s Number One Fan, and is exceedingly resourceful, doting and sweet albeit a little strange and old fashioned in her speech and garb.
Once Annie reads the latest Misery novel and discovers that her beloved heroine has been killed off, her honeyed humdrum manner dissolves into psychotic and murderous obsession. Once Annie’s true colours have been exposed, Sheldon is kept as her captive to write another novel, one where Misery lives on while the rest of the world, which in this film comprises largely of the local sheriff (Richard Farnsworth), his wife (Frances Sternhagen) and his agent (Lauren Becall), think that Sheldon is dead.
The film understandably turns on Kathy Bates’ performance, and she’s undeniably sensational and completely deserving of her Best Actress Oscar. As intense and terrifying the character of Annie Wilks is, Bates’ interpretation is still somehow believable. An important element of this is the character’s genuine belief that she is righteous and just in her madness and that she’s doing it all for Sheldon’s own good. Annie doesn’t see anything strange or wrong in keeping Sheldon captive, she’s the only one who truly understands his genius and while it may seem harsh, its really for the benefit of mankind and she is thereby justified in doing so. Bates does extraordinarily well in transitioning from sweet and doe eyed to monstrous and then back again within mere seconds and it’s fun watching because there’s no indication of when she may turn and this keeps the tension constant and permeating throughout their scenes together.
James Caan’s performance is interesting here, because although his role is arguably as the central protagonist, he has adopted a very subdued manner – reacting with stunned restraint to Annie’s outbursts. This makes sense to me; Kathy Bates has the more interesting and memorable character and had Caan tried to match that then the tone of the film would have felt inconsistent and disingenuous.
What is unique about “Misery” is that it has taken Stephen King’s capacity to find the horror in the ordinary and mundane, and delivered a film which so supremely terrifying because it is so steeply rooted in the rules and confines of the real world that we as an audience could actually imagine this kind of monster existing and this kind of thing happening.
By Jock Lehman