Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Movie Reviews: "Big Driver" and "Mercy"

I work most Saturday nights, so I was not home to see Lifetime's movie version of Big Driver this past weekend.  But that's why God made DVRs, babe; that's why God made DVRs.
 
So when I got home, I plopped down in front of the teevee and gave it a look, and then decided to turn things into a double feature and check out Mercy, as well.
  
This was far from being the best double feature I've ever experienced.  We may as well get that established right up front.  But despite that, we may as well discuss the movies, because that's what we do around here.
  
  
  
  
Big Driver began at something of a disadvantage.  I'm not a huge fan of the novella (which appeared in Full Dark, No Stars) to begin with; it's got a sort of not-quite-finished feel to it, and what I mean by that is that the prose struck me as being a bit less distinguished than is typically the case with King.  If it were a baked potato, it'd be that sort of slightly-harder-than-desired texture that tells you to put that sucker back in for another half hour.
  
This is not to say that it's a bad novella.  It isn't, and in order to discuss that more fully, we're about to go into spoiler territory.
  
So if you wish to remain unaware of what happens in the novella and in the movie, this is your cue to skip down until you see the poster for Mercy.  
  
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Okay.  So, for me, what makes the novella work in spite of the mildly undercooked prose is the thematic underpinning of a mystery writer applying her skill for plotting to a real-world situation.  I doubt King was breaking new ground with that theme, but it's one I'd never encountered before, so I enjoyed it.  King had actually done something vaguely similar in Misery, in which Paul Sheldon finds himself playing a game he calls "Can You?" in which he sort of applies his skill at plotting stories to what he hopes will be a skill for plotting the course of his own life.
  
"Big Driver" is like that, but amplified; and, for me, that's what the story is really all about -- King exploring the boundaries between what mental processes make a person a writer of fiction and what mental processes make a person a lunatic.
  
Oh, yeah, and there's a rape scene and a revenge plot, too.
  
If I say that as though it is an afterthought, I do so mainly for effect.  I really do think those elements are secondary to King's novella, though.  They are the story/plot which permit for the exploration of what King is really interested in (i.e., the voices in Tess's head and the uses to which she puts them).
  
It might theoretically be said that what King does here is crass and exploitative.  Personally, I don't take it that way.  I think he's found a legitimate topic; because sometimes people do get raped, and sometimes people do kill other people.  That means sometimes those things ought to be written about.  But if you've got the mindset that Stephen King is the wrong person to do so and that "Big Driver" is the wrong way in which to do it, I honestly can't say that I have a beef with your viewpoint.  I don't personally agree with it, but "Big Driver" is ultimately not quite good enough for me to want to defend it at all costs.
  
The fact that Lifetime -- which must have produced and aired something like 1786 movies over the years about women who get raped -- produced the movie version is so unsurprising that in retrospect it's hard to believe it didn't happen sooner.  Good lord, with Lifetime in the picture there might still be a chance for King's obscure rape-centric short story "Man with a Belly" to still find cinematic life!  I'm no expert on Lifetime, nor am I even a knowledgeable novice; in fact, Big Driver is the first thing I've ever seen on that channel.  But I know enough to know that the stereotype is true enough to make Big Driver seem thoroughly inevitable.
  
Reviewers seem to have mostly been unimpressed, and in some cases it seems to have been from a standpoint of morality.  One particularly negative critic used the word "odious," which is a marvelous word from an aesthetic point of view.  Does it really apply to Big Driver?
  
Again, I'd say no.  But in the case of the movie, it's a narrower thing.  The screenwriter, Richard Christian Matheson, certainly makes an effort to bring some of the novella's thematic concerns to the fore in the movie.  They never quite get there.  I engaged with the movie in that way to some degree, but mostly because I was porting over my feelings about the novella.  If I ask myself the question "How would I feel about this if I'd never read the book?" and answer honestly, I am forced to admit that I would have found it to be a bit icky.
  
The all-time champeen among Worst (Most Horrifying) Rape Scenes remains the one in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy.  That one might fuck you up.  And that's a good thing.  Rape scenes should fuck you up.  They should never be taken lightly.  It isn't taken lightly in Big Driver, either, but I'd argue that it's only Maria Bello who's working overtime to make sure that the scene hurts.  Will Harris does what he can, but he's not even allowed to take his pants down.  Honestly, who rapes somebody without lowering their pants a bit?  Probably nobody, so right there you have something that smacks a bit of Hollywoodization; and if you do that with a fistfight scene, it's one thing, but it's a WHOLE 'nother thing altogether if you do it with a rape scene.
  
Granted, it's not possible to be as graphic in a movie -- even one for cable in 2014 -- as King is in the novella; nor would I want to see that.  But this is where art comes into play, and director Mikael Salomon simply doesn't have the chops to make the scene work.  You don't have to be Alfred Hitchcock to make a rape scene disturbing, but you do have to bring something to the table, and I would argue that Salomon brings very little.  He's directed Stephen King adaptations before: the remake of Salem's Lot, which is quite poor, and two decent episodes of Nightmares & Dreamscapes ("Autopsy Room Four" and "The End of the Whole Mess").  Some of what he does in Big Driver is solid; this is arguably the strongest work I've seen from him.  For what that's worth.
  
The movie also makes the choice to make sure Tess is wearing a short, sexy dress prior to the rape.  It's a bit on the flashy side, and when I saw it in the movie, I immediately wished she'd been costumed in some other fashion.  A consultation of the novella informs me that Tess wore dress slacks to the speaking engagement, and that feels more appropriate to the situation.  The notion of a woman "asking for it" by means of her attire is a ludicrous one, of course; but, still, it feels wrong for the character.
  
Let's talk about something in the movie that works: namely, Maria Bello.  She is fantastic.  No shock there, right?  She's always fantastic.  Even in Secret Window, playing a relatively thankless role.  But here, she's dynamite.  She's far and away the best thing about the movie, and she's so strong, in fact, that I'd have to say that I like Big Driver purely on the strength of her performance.  (Which is what I was hoping for, but failed to get, from Joan Allen in A Good Marriage.)  She might be at her best in the scenes against "Tom" (the voice she imagines for her TomTom GPS system, which serves as something of a conscience for her at times), and that is no small feat.  But she's great in every scene, really.
  
Much of the supporting cast is quite good as well.  Ann Dowd is possibly the standout of the other players; she's Ramona, who sets the plot into motion.  Will Harris is good as the rapist; Olympia Dukakis is good as the visualization of one of Ramona's characters; Joan Jett is good as the bartender who calls Tess about her car.  I can't fault the acting at all, to be honest.
  
What I can fault is the screenplay, which makes at least two iffy decisions.  (I say "iffy," because I want to leave room to change my mind on repeat viewings; but what I really mean if "terrible.")
  
Poor decision #1 -- when Tess gets away from the drainage ditch, she goes to a convenience store to make a couple of phone calls.  One of them is to herself (her home recording machine, so she can record details lest she forget them); the other is to a limo service.  In the novella, she does so unobserved; she makes the calls -- call, actually; she does not call her home phone in the book -- from an outside pay phone, and then retreats to the shadows so nobody will see her.  In the movie, she makes these calls in the middle of the store, which must have a dozen people inside, all of whom pay her very close attention.  Not so much as you'd think, though; none of them call the police, which is what would happen.
  
Poor decision #2 -- much later, when Tess is stalking Big Driver and finds his big-rig truck parked at a gas station, she runs up to it to get the address off the side.  Then, once she's back in her car, she's approached by a police officer, who wants to know why she's on the side of the road.  Oh, and also why she ran over to that truck and looked at it.  This scene is not in the novella.
  
Based on these two scenes, there is no way to conclude anything other than that Tess will be caught and convicted for a triple murder.  There is no chance that the police officer didn't run her plates before approaching her; there is no chance that she won't remember Tess when she finds out that the driver of that big-rig truck has been murdered.  And since this is a small town, she WILL know about it.  So will some -- if not all -- of the people who saw Tess in the convenience store, and if one of them happened to observe the limo show up to take Tess away, then it's game over for this mystery writer.
  
This would be permissible if the point of the movie was to create tension over the idea of Tess getting caught.  It isn't; these scenes do not factor into the rest of the movie in any way.  They are both utterly pointless.  Worse than that, they are actively destructive; they create logic holes which cannot be ignored.  Tess, we are led to believe, is so good a writer of murder mysteries that she herself can commit murders and get away with them.  Any writer who actually fit that bill would, immediately upon being questioned -- however briefly -- by a police officer, abort her plans and come up with new ones.  She'd be an idiot not to do so, and Big Driver wants us to believe that Tess is anything but an idiot.
  
So what we have here is a case of the screenplay being somewhat at odds with itself.  It's a weird situation.  Since both scenes were invented for the movie, I can only assume that Matheson had a reason for putting them in.  But I cannot for the life of me imagine what that reason would be.  Maybe somebody can explain it to me.  You've got your work cut out for you; but maybe you're up to it.
 
I'd also like to complain about the final scene of the movie, which involves Joan Jett's character calling Tess and telling her that she knows what Tess did (i.e., she knows it was Tess who killed the rapey Big Driver, his brother, and his mother).  We're supposed to think that Tess has forgotten about this potential loose end, and that it is going to result in her capture.  Instead, Joan Jett says something along the lines of "You go, girl," and the movie ends on that abrupt note of odd self-congratulation.
 
In the novella, the character -- Betsy -- meets with Tess and explains that she herself is a victim of abuse, and she agrees to keep Tess's secret.  This scene is present in the movie, but it's moved up to the scene where Tess retrieves her car from the bar parking lot.  It makes no sense there, particularly.  I'm not by any means beholden to the way things happen in the novella; make changes, it's fine by me, but they must make sense.  Here, they seem to be engineered only so as to permit for a moment of tension when we think Betsy is going to prove to be Tess's undoing.  But the moment is squandered; it is too abrupt for there to be any resultant tension.  So the change was made for no reason at all.
 
I'm not entirely sure how I'd have ended the movie, but I know how I wouldn't have ended it.
  
So, to sum up: we begin with source material that I like, but do not love; add a 75% competent, 25% incompetent adapted screenplay; add a 100% effective lead actress, and a supporting cast that gets to maybe 80%; and add generally competent, but mostly uninspired, direction.  I'm no math whiz, even when it comes to fake math of my own invention; but I believe that the math on that equation adds up to a barely-passing grade.
  
There will be people who like this much more than I like it.  I envy their enjoyment; mine hinged almost totally on one element, and was severely blunted by much of the others.
  
Let's move along to Mercy:
  
  
  
  
I had only moderate expectations for Big Driver: I was so-so on the novella, the director has mostly not impressed me, and the venue (Lifetime) did not inspire confidence.  It was only Maria Bello who made me optimistic.
  
If I was nursing moderate expectations for Big Driver, my expectations for Mercy never rose above poor.  I like the short story ("Gramma") which serves as the supposed source material, but it isn't an especial favorite or anything.  Add to that slight indifference this: total indifference toward the film's director (Peter Cornwell, from whom I have seen nothing); and active disdain for the screenwriter (Matt Greenberg, who wrote 1408 [a film I don't care for much] and Halloween H20 [ditto] and Reign of Fire [ditto]).
  
The cast intrigued me.  Chandler "Carl Grimes of The Walking Dead" Riggs is a sort of affable onscreen presence; Joel Courtney was excellent in Super 8; I like Frances O'Connor mainly based on her appearance in A.I.; and while I'm not particularly familiar with Shirley Knight, I know she's a well-respected actress.
  
So there's that.
  
However, the months-long lack of a release date was a serious cause for concern.  When a movie is finished with filming but no release date has been set, that's typically not a good sign.  It typically means that the studio (or whoever owns it) doesn't know what to do with it; and they typically don't know what to do with a movie -- which, you'll remember, they paid to make -- only when it has failed to meet their expectations.  If they don't have at least a tentative release date, it's often because they're trying to figure out how to lessen the amount of money they're going to lose on this turkey they've unwisely invested in.
  
Such was the case with A Good Marriage and Horns earlier this month; such is the case with Mercy, which was unceremoniously dumped onto VOD sites like Amazon a few weeks back.  Supposedly a DVD is being released October 21 -- that's today! -- but Amazon doesn't seem to be aware of it.  Universal seems to be putting about as little energy into the release as is contractually possible.
 
These are not good signs for a movie's quality.  Which is why I am pleased to report that the movie is better than I expected.
 
Don't let that make you think I'm endorsing the movie.  I'm not.  It's a bad movie; just not AS bad as I feared it might be.
 
As it turns out, Matt Greenberg's screenplay is fairly good.  Only "fairly"; but that's more than I expected, so consider me pleasantly surprised.
 
Very little of the short story remains, of course, and that's no shock at all, given how limited the story is.  It barely worked as a half-hour television episode; and that was with Harlan Ellison writing the screenplay!  (For the '80s relaunch of The Twilight Zone, in case you were wondering.)  In driving toward an adaptation of "Gramma" at feature-film length, ANY screenwriter would be forced to stop to fill up at Making Shit Up along the way.  So I don't fault Greenberg for making shit up; I only care about the quality of the shit he made up.
 
As it turns out?  Not bad.  It adds layers of familial intrigue, plus some country-folks-worshipping-devils stuff that could have come out of lesser Lovecraft; those things are fine.  It also adds a prominent subtheme dealing with how depressing it is to have a loved one become infirm; having to live with and care for them makes it all the more depressing, and there are moments when these ideas get close to legitimately working.  They never quite cross over.  Instead, you get occasional little peeks at the considerably better movie that might theoretically have been made out of this screenplay.
 
This brings us to director Peter Cornwell.  He's no good.  He has no sense of how to build a scare.  He appears to be okay at getting good performances out of adult actors.  He appears to be less good at getting good performances out of juvenile actors; Riggs and Courtney are both good in some scenes, not so good in others.  Courtney was excellent in Super 8, but he had director J.J. Abrams guiding him there; and if you want to know the difference in quality between J.J. Abrams and Peter Cornwell, do a Joel Courtney litmus test.
 
Courtney isn't bad, though.  He's got an amusing -- albeit misplaced -- subplot about wanting to be a master chef.  His character adds little to the movie, though; there's no convincing reason why a sibling should have been added to the story for the film.
 
I spent much of the movie thinking "Hey, this is kind of okay."  That evaporated at some point during the climax, which involves a scene that is at least mildly equivalent to the short story's central scene.  I don't want to be too specific, so as to spare those of you who might want to see the movie at some point.  So I won't say what happens in the movie.  Instead, I will say how it happens: it happens poorly.  I kid y'all not, it looks like the movie ran out of money at some point before the post-production on the climax was finished, and the effects people had to just run with what they had.  So as to make it look less shitty, they seem to have perhaps used color timing to make the whole scene look so dark as to almost be unviewable.  Perhaps they reasoned that people would think it was a nifty artistic choice to have the climax of the movie be visually indecipherable.  It wasn't.  It looks like they simply failed to finish the movie, and figured nobody would care.
 
They're probably right about that.  This seems destined to mostly not be seen by most casual King fans; and it may slip beneath the radars of many hardcore fans, too.  I've seen many worse films based -- however loosely -- on King material, so it's not as bad as it could have been.  But there's no selling point, either.  It's not bad enough to be entertaining (like Graveyard Shift or Maximum Overdrive); it's just limp and barely-finished.  You'll only have to invest 80 minutes of your life to it, but let's be honest: if your main objective with a movie is for it to be over as soon as possible, you've chosen an odd way to evaluate movies.
 
But if so, then this sucker might be right up your alley.
 
As for me...?  I didn't hate it, and that's at least something.

18 comments:

  1. Well, these both sound kinda blah.

    The Lifetime abused-woman-vengeance trope is so well-established that, as you say, it was only a matter of time before Big Driver came around. I remember enjoying the novella quite a bit, but I wonder how it'll sit with me on re-read.

    "Gramma" I never much cared for. This "Mercy" doesn't sound like it'll change my mind.

    (I leave this post feeling like I need to watch "Graveyard Shift" again very soon. Or "Maximum Overdrive.")

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    1. I would say that if you're only so-so on "Gramma," "Mercy" is unlikely to sway you.

      I've got a hankering for "Maximum Overdrive," too, now that you mention it.

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  2. I liked Big Driver quite a bit more than you did, but I have to agree with you on the changes Matheson made being rather pointless and fundamentally changing the tone of the film. But it's still a very solid adaptation and much better than I expected from Lifetime.

    As for Mercy, I have no plans to seek it out or pay for it but I'll give it a shot if it ever shows up on TV or Netflix.

    It seems that we've been getting more King movies this year than we have in a few years and I can't really complain about that. But it's a shame the best one has been a Lifetime movie. Here's hoping that Cell is better. The cast is promising, at least. And the new It and The Stand movies as well as Gerald's Game and The Ten 'o Clock People all seem to have potential. I just wish A Good Marriage would have been better.

    Anyway, what do you think the odds are that Lifetime snatches up either "The Gingerbread Girl" or "Rose Madder" next? I'm betting they will try to follow this up somehow and those two seem like the best fits.

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    1. I can't agree that "The Ten O'Clock People" has much potential. That one seems destined to end up in VOD hell, too. Then again, I'm not a Tom Holland fanm which is what he gets for directing "The Langoliers" and "Thinner."

      I'd be curious to know what sort of ratings "Big Driver" got for Lifetime. If it did well -- and I'm guessing it did -- then Lifetime really might be able to carve out a new niche in adapting rapey Stephen King stories.

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  3. Yea Cell seems to have been hiding as well that will be dumped on VOD probably in January.
    Let try to think of the last SK adaptation that was good....hmmmm....uhhhh.
    I will still watch both of these but after Domie Dome and these it looks like SK movies are in a downward spiral.
    -mikeC

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    1. Yeah, we have to go back quite a ways for the last good one. I liked Big Driver, but it was merely decent. In 2007 we got two good ones in 1408 and The Mist (although neither were perfect) and before that Secret Window in 2004, which is very underrated. So three in the last ten years.

      I think the less said about Under the Dome the better. I said from the beginning that CBS should have instead went with 11/22/63 because it takes place over several years and portions of the book could easily be expanded upon to make for more episodes. Not so with UTD.

      And now CBS is wanting to do a series based around "The Things They Left Behind." Bad idea. If they want a King series what they should do is buy up the rights to ALL of his short stories and do an anthology along the lines of The Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt. I've been hoping someone would do that for years.

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    2. That would be a good idea in theory, although there was a miniseries -- "Nightmares & Dreamscapes" -- that sort of tried it already, and it didn't work out too well. There was about one decent episode of that.

      Handled well, though, it could be terrific.

      I'm bummed out about that "Things They Left Behind" series. It's a terrible idea. And isn't there a second one similar to that, based on "The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates"?

      Christ...why does King allow this shit to happen?

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    3. The End of the Whole Mess was perfect! They even kept the ending!
      Battleground was great. Crouch End was pretty good.
      I wish they had kept on with that idea/show.
      -mikeC

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    4. I do too, even though I was much more lukewarm on it than you. It had potential.

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  4. I will give the adaptation of Big Driver points only insofar as the first time I saw the previews, the TV in question was far enough away that there was effectively no sound, and before the title came up, I thought, "Oh, I thought it was A Good Marriage they were making into a movie, not Big Driver." So if one is inclined to award anything for instant recognition, it might qualify. The loose-end-creating changes you mention certainly wouldn't do it any favors--if you're going to have Lifetime adapt it, it's going to be *primarily* a rape-revenge story, not secondarily one like, as you note, it is in the text, and that kind of thing really has to be streamlined to have much power.

    Mercy, on the other hand, I didn't even know about. I liked "Gramma" quite a bit, but this sounds like about what I'd expect of a full-length film adapted from a not-especially-deep short story.

    I only recently discovered this blog, by the way, and so aside from commenting on the actual post, I have to tell you that it's been amazing to read back through old entries. Love the detailed analysis and the worst-to-best lists!

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    1. Thanks for the compliments! Those make my day.

      You make a good point about the instant-recognition factor to "Big Driver." I hadn't considered it, but that's arguably one of the strongest elements in the mix of the many factors which have made King so well-known a quantity. So many of his books/stories have a hook (i.e., "girl destroys the prom" or "writer kills rapist" or "haunted car" and so forth) that makes them instantly graspable. Undoubtedly this is a big part of the reason why Hollywood has consistently had such a penchant for bringing his work to the screen, despite the fact that there have been shockingly few of the movies to actually be hits.

      "A Good Marriage" has that going for it too, doesn't it? Sadly, it was (as it so often is) squandered.

      Thanks for stopping by -- you are welcome back any time!

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  5. I was actually surprised by how much I wound up liking Big Driver. While I don't know if I'd put it in any top ten, I think it holds itself up well enough. As for the scenes with the cop and Joan Jett, I can't help thinking Matheson might have been going for a covert solidarity between abused women and those who are at least somewhat in power (i.e. the cop).

    From a storytelling perspective, I'm less concerned about whether or not that makes sense, than I am as to the kind of message this might send. Here, however, I know I'm treading onto sensitive territory, yet at the same time I can't help but think it's the wrong way to try and encourage people.

    Yeah, it's really complex, and rather than hang myself with my own words, I'm moving on.

    Mercy, I lost all faith with in the opening scene. While the short story is one of my favorites, I do think the filmmakers tackled the wrong material for a movie with this one. As for whether a Ten 'O'clock film will work, who can say. I liked the original story, so we'll just have to see how Tom Holland handles this one.

    I can say I'm glad CBS didn't get 11/22/63, however. I don't need a good story watered down with either network cheese or padding, really.

    ChrisC

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    1. "From a storytelling perspective, I'm less concerned about whether or not that makes sense, than I am as to the kind of message this might send."

      Why? That really isn't the sort of thing Stephen King does, so I'm not sure why this movie should get a pass for doing it and stepping outside the bounds of his style.

      I'd add that if that was what Matheson was trying to achieve with the cop scene, he failed miserably.

      Glad you liked the movie, though. I didn't dislike it; but certain elements exasperated me.

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    2. Oh, and as for the CBS-not-getting-"11/22/63" thing, I would echo that with a humungous ME TOO! Ugh; the thought nauseates me a bit.

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  6. Are you aware of this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evIqfWIpUjc (Not a spam comment. It is related to Stephen King's work and was made by somebody he worked with- briefly- on another project).

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    1. Holy shit...!

      No, I had no idea! Thank so much for the link.

      Good stuff.

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  7. I found the biggest difference between how effective A Good Marriage and Big Driver were - is one was helmed by a director who knew how to effectively stage and create tension.

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    1. I didn't think "Big Driver" was anything special in that regard; but it was solid, for sure, and vastly better than "A Good Marriage."

      The more I think about "A Good Marriage," the worse it seems. It really bums me out that King is so willing to hand over great material like that novella to somebody who clearly has no business making movies. Ahhh, what a shame...

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