Friday, June 8, 2018

Movie Review: "Dolores Claiborne" (1995)

Today, it's movie-review time, and we're threading the 1995 Warner Bros. adaptation of Dolores Claiborne through the handy-dandy Truth Inside The Lie projector.
Confession: the foregoing sentence is an example of the kind of bullshit you write when you can't quiiiiiiite figure out how to begin a blog post but are determined to begin it nevertheless.  Vamping ain't just for podcasts!

One thing I always struggle with when writing these reviews is a question: should I primarily think of them as a thing separate from the novels/stories upon which they are based, or should I instead think of them as a reflection of that source material and judge them accordingly?
It's a difficult question to answer in some cases, but I'm being somewhat disingenuous in having even posed it, because I've got my answer all lined up, and have had it for many a year now: I do whatever I feel like doing at the time I'm doing it.  So do I sometimes feel perfectly content to consider the movies as their own thing?  You bet I do.  Do I at other times feel like either praising or (this is more common) cursing the movie for the degree to which it hews to its source material?  Oh, for sure.
And there are still other times where I seem to take a hybrid approach, feeling both things simultaneously.
It's a case-by-case thing with me, and if that strikes you as being wishy-washy or flip-floppy or just plain old hypocritical, well, you don't need my permission to be thus struck, so go on ahead.  I'd only point out that this adaptation game is a tricky one; there are no rules, only a shifting maze of approaches that may or may not lead you to the end goal that is "success."
On the whole, I think I'm pretty consistent in my own approach to appraising this stuff: I just want to see something good.  Great would be even better, and okay'll do in a pinch; but give me something good, and I'll not only roll with you, but I'll ride shotgun and keep an eye out for bandits.
No point in burying the lede any further: I think this is an awfully good movie.  It might even get close to being a great one; I said I thought more or less that the last time I ranked all the King movies (this one came in at #10). 
Rewatching it now, I think I'd probably downgrade that opinion a small bit and say that I think this is a very good movie with numerous great elements, but one which stumbles a bit right at the end.  We'll get to the specifics of that in due course, but let's first discuss what the movie is about.  That seems like a self-evident thing, but I given how much attention I've devoted to the novel recently, it is probably a good idea to put in some legwork in as regards establishing the movie as its own thing.

The movie is about a woman who has been informally accused of murdering the elderly woman to whom she was a caretaker.  This accusation comes to the attention of her estranged daughter, a high-powered journalist, who makes the trip to a small island off the coast of Maine for the first time in fifteen years; while there assisting her mother in somewhat contentious fashion, her mother -- in somewhat contentious fashion -- assists her in unlocking memories of sexual abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her father.  Her father was, as a result of this abused, killed by her mother, who got away with the crime; but the detective who almost caught her then is investigating this new death, and is determined to put her away to square his own books.

Speaking of books, this movie differs from the book upon which it is based in several key areas.  We're apt to talk about them all in more depth, but before we get any farther away from that (mildly shite) plot summary, let's emphasize the two major ones:

  • The adult version of Selena St. George, the daughter, is only referred to in the novel.  We know she exists, and we know she is estranged from Dolores, but she does not enter into the narrative.  Here, she is arguably the co-lead of the film alongside Dolores herself.
  • The detective character does not exist in the novel.  There is a medical examiner who doubts Dolores's story and questions her intensely, but he does not in any way enter into the investigation into the death of Vera Donovan (the death which sets the movie into motion in the opening scene).

I give both of these changes a thumbs-up.  The incorporation of adult Selena into the plot is logical, and permits much of the backstory to be delivered in a graceful manner.  The obsessed-cop angle is also logical, and adds an urgency and tension to the plot.  It permits the audience to see things happening; to vicariously experience them.  An audience of book readers can experience things vicariously by having stories told to them via flashback (which is what the novel consists of almost exclusively), but an audience of moviegoers -- or rents, or streamers, or whatever people who watch movies are collectively called these days -- has different needs.

In other words, the two most major changes from book to film have seemingly been made so as to effectively shift the story from one medium to another; and, crucially, those decisions have seemingly been made so as to expand upon aspects of the novel that were already present.  It's not as if Selena and Detective Mackey have been invented out of whole cloth; they are instead expanded versions of the novel's Selena and of the medical examiner who previously existed.  (If you want an example of the movie making up someone new out of whole cloth, look no further than Selena's boyfriend/editor; he is wholly new, and it's probably not a coincidence that he is one of the least successful aspects of the film.)

Bottom line for both of me on those things: they work, both in conception and in execution.  Know ye one and all that that is my pronouncement, and so shall it be going forth from here.

Which we shall now do, in the form of ... eh ... something.  I dunno.  We'll figure it out as we go.

I suppose we may as well start at the beginning, where what we get is a crane (?) shot that comes off the surface of the ocean, glides up a hill toward Vera Donovan's house, and then takes us inside.  Once there, we hear an argument, and get an early example of the crackerjack visual style director Taylor Hackford and cinematographer Gabriel Beristain have brought to the proceedings.  We hear the argument as we find ourselves at the bottom of a staircase, and at the top we see silhouetted figures struggling physically:

It's a lovely bit, but it doesn't screencap terribly well.  Other bits of visual excellent pop up throughout, and they are much more showcaseable.  Hackford's agenda seems to involve telling the story in a manner that conveys story, psychology, and character via the visuals.  Duh, right?  It's a movie!  That's what movies do.

Well ... sometimes.  In just as many cases, movies fail at doing that and come off seeming like filmed stage plays, or visualized audiobooks or something.  Hackford seems to be trying to do something more: to direct in the style of (among others) Alfred Hitchcock, who was -- and still is -- famed for his ability to convey information visually in a way that only cinema could achieve.

We'll see more of that as the movie progresses, and it's a good fit for an approach to this novel.

This opening scene is obviously playing with the expectations of viewers who are not familiar with that novel, by the way; which (it must be remembered) is the vast majority of potential viewers.  A great many of those viewers will presumably have come to Dolores Claiborne with the knowledge that it stars Kathy Bates, who played Annie Wilkes in Misery.  For them, this opening scene almost certainly plays like a murder; the filmmakers are obviously assuming that to be the case, at least.

Ostensibly, this ought to allow us to empathize with Selena, who comes to Little Tall Island with no real desire whatsoever to be there.  When we meet her (in New York City, where she's a high-powered journalist), she's already a grump; and finding out that her mother is accused of murder only makes her more so.

It is with the character of Selena that the movie likely either grabs one or pushes one away.  She's by no means universally loved; the Stephen King Cast, for example, feels that Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance is shallow and artificial and hurts the movie (especially since Selena can arguably be thought of as its main character).  Its host, Constant Reader, mentions -- if I'm remembering this correctly -- that Selena feels more or less like a stereotypical teenager.  And I agree with that, but I see it as a positive rather than a negative; I think that's the point: that Selena never managed to grow up.

And so what you see a lot during the film is Jennifer Jason Leigh behaving almost as if she IS still a teenager, complete with temper tantrums, wild gesticulations, and so forth.  It's obviously all a defense mechanism, as is the drinking, and the smoking, and the hinted-at sexual wildness ("I'm telling you there are a lot of nobodies," she replies when her mother professes surprise that a pretty girl like her doesn't have anybody).  This is a woman who ran riot during her third semester of college and then stayed that way.

But we get occasional peeks at a different Selena, hiding below that well-crafted facade.  Leigh allows real emotion to break through during a few key moments, such as when she is on the verge of emotional collapse and takes a pill to calm herself down.

Nevertheless, I do think the film makes a serious misstep with her as it progresses in that it never quite allows -- encourages? forces? -- Selena/Leigh to shed that artificial shell she has put up around herself.  What happens is that we see a LOT of that shell, with occasional peeks at a more honestly emotional (and disturbed) woman beneath its surface; and then, when Selena is able to recover her own memory of the abuse she suffered at her father's hands, she ... kind of just keeps on being who she has been the whole movie.

During the excellent scene in which Selena rides on the ferry and remembers her father abusing her, it's clear that Selena is experiencing a bit of a breakthrough.  This manifests in her willingness to actually speak up in her mother's defense, which she does; but in some ways, Selena/Leigh seems as artificial in this inquest scene as she ever did earlier in the film.  I don't blame Leigh for this; I blame screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who has put Selena in a position where she has to conceal at least a large chunk of the truth about her mother.  So how can Leigh manage NOT to play Selena as artificial?  In these moments, she is still artificial, to a great degree.

What the movie clearly needed is a different ending, one which encourages Selena to embrace her emotions.  What audiences needed at the end of this movie is a big sentimental swell of emotion; or, perhaps, a big tragic swell of emotion.  What we got instead was a continued atmosphere of chilliness, leavened only slightly by the hint that mother and daughter are on the road to rapprochement.  That's a realistic way to go, but it's not an emotionally satisfying one; this movie needed the sort of swing-for-the-fences sentiment that made The Shawshank Redemption such a favorite.  Do I know how to get there from here?  I do not.  But it's what the movie needed, I think, and my failure to have a better idea does not absolve the filmmakers of their misstep.

Now, that said, I still think the movie works.  From the inquest scene forward, it's hampered and takes a path leading to acceptability rather than greatness, but hey, not every at-bat is going to produce a home run.  If you want only home runs, you're gonna miss a lot of fine baseball, methinks.

For example, you'll miss how good a performance Bates gives in the title role.

I mean, you can't really miss it unless you just skip watching the movie; but if you get hung up on how the movie doesn't quiiiiite manage to stick the landing, I think you're apt not to notice the extent of Bates's greatness here.  This is one of the best performances in any King movie, and if you told me it's THE best, I might sputter something along the lines of "but jack nicholson" for a second, but I'd be unable to mount any substantive disagreement.  She's THAT good here.  Way better than she is in Misery, I think ... and her performance there is top-ten-in-King worthy.

She's SO good in Dolores Claiborne, in fact, that I managed not to take any notes on it.  But it's kind of understandable; I mean, shit, it's just one great moment after another from her, for damn near two solid hours.

To return to the complaint I was making earlier about the inquest scene keeping the film from achieving orbit, however, I would point out that another reason that scene falls flat is by giving Bates nothing substantive to do.  In this scene, Dolores has resigned herself to being captured by Mackey; she's surprised by Selena's return and defense of her, but she's not capable of acting on it in any meaningful way.  And all the screenplay really gives her to do in the final scene is blow her daughter a kiss.  So here again, let's blame screenwriter Tony Gilroy and director Taylor Hackford, who leave their most colorful and well-sharpened crayon in the box right at the end in the pursuit of realism.

Elsewhere, though, Bates is given one opportunity after another to shine, and she seizes ever single one.  Such as:

  • Dolores failing initially to recognize Selena as her daughter;
  • playing Dolores as a woman whose child is maybe only five years old old in a brief flashback, during which she seems impossibly beautiful and impossibly happy in comparison to the woman we see elsewhere in the film;
  • her gently ungentle chiding of Selena for following in Joe's footsteps as a heavy drinker;
  • every second of the scene in which she is hit by Joe with a piece of firewood and then takes a pitcher of cream upside his head;
  • her continual implied fuck-yous to Mackey;
  • her comforting of the elderly Vera (including an especially fine little moment when she tenderly dabs tears from the tip of the sad old woman's nose);
  • her angered astonishment at finding out Vera left her the entirety of her estate;
  • her reaction to finding out Joe has stolen all of her money;
  • her breakdown in front of Vera;
  • the entirety of the buildup to and resolution of the eclipse scene;

and so forth.

If the film had caught on in a meaningful way, she might well have won a second Oscar (it went to Susan Sarandon for Dead Man Walking), and would possibly be as iconic as her role as Annie Wilkes.  As is, it's merely well-respected; but it ought to loved, and maybe even adored.  It's worthy; but the film fails to entirely live up to it, so it never quite managed to happen.

I'll tell you who else is great in this movie: Christopher Plummer, playing Detective John Mackey.  He's a sort of Javert figure, and he's so vastly preferable to the ridiculous Groundskeeper Willie medical examiner in the novel (who is Mackey's obvious antecedent) that it's like the starship Enterprise racing a fat dude -- like me! -- riding a tricycle.  It simply isn't a contest.

I think the argument could be made that the character ends up not quite working on a script level.  I mean, let's face it: Mackey isn't wrong to be pursuing Dolores, is he?  She IS a murderer!  He's 100% right about her having killed her husband, so what reason does he have not to feel she must also be guilty of killing Vera?  If I were a detective, I'd be doing exactly what he does.  So it's difficult to fully see him as the movie's villain, and as such, it fails to satisfyingly resolve things when he is defeated at the end.  Subconsciously, I think we know we kind of ought to be on his side.

What might the solution to all this have been?  I think the movie needed to wear its heart on its sleeve, and if it missed a trick from adapting the novel, I think what it missed was allowing the truth to come out.  In the novel, Dolores confesses -- confesses everything -- to the police officers, who obviously end up deciding to (a) believe her and (b) to not charge her.  This is kind of an astonishing development, when you think about it, and the fact that we don't get it directly -- it is only implied, and the implication comes via the scrapbook that ends the book, with an article saying she has been absolved of all blame -- somehow makes it more powerful.

Maybe the inquest scene needed to be Selena and Dolores teaming up to just point-blank tell Mackey the truth about Joe, and for him to then, in shell-shocked fashion, decide that letting Dolores go is the right thing to do.  In this fashion, he finally gets his (wo)man after all those years; but lets her go again of his own volition, thereby turning from antagonist into the good man we have known him to be all along.

I dunno.  I'm rewriting a thing from twenty-three years ago, which is a chump's game.  Regardless, boy is Christopher Plummer great in this movie.

You know, I feel as if I've been shitting on this movie more -- WAY more -- than I expected or wanted to.  I think it's been done fairly; I do feel as if the movie gets to the end and fumbles the ball at the three-yard-line, and that's a thing worth complaining about.  (Apologies for shifting to a football metaphor when we were using a baseball one earlier.  I may yet deploy a volleyball metaphor as well, so be warned.)  But I think the game is still won; not in as convincing a fashion as one might have hoped, granted, but a win is a win.

And by golly, I think we ought to celebrate it for a while.

There are a number of standout sequences, such as this one, which I am going to attempt to convey via screencap:

After coming home with Selena and finding some graffiti and broken windows, Dolores waits on the porch while her daughter tries to get the stuck front door open.  She looks out...

...into the yard and sees a familiar landscape.

The image brightens and shifts into a scene of people walking around, searching for something.

Cut back to Dolores, obviously experiencing a memory of some sort, a memory...

...of brighter times, when Selena was still a young girl.

Cut back to Dolores, magically returned to youth in the wink of an eye.  She warns Selena not to go into the yard, to get back in the house.

She turns, hearing grown-up Selena say

"I am in the house."  Note that it is young Dolores looking at old Selena; this is a haunting notion.
Cut back to Dolores, seemingly a bit shocked to find herself in the present again.  Clearly, her memories are strong, and always with her.

All of this is accomplished via excellent cinematography (Gabriel Beristain) and editing (Mark Warner), with Danny Elfman's score giving a major -- if subtle -- assist.

Hackford mentions on the DVD commentary track -- more on which in a bit -- that he thought of the movie as a ghost story, with this house being utterly haunted; but by memory rather than the supernatural.

And I think that tracks throughout the film, more or less.  Consider this moment, in which Dolores sits in Selena's bedroom (which, not unlike Selena herself, is still the same as it was when she left fifteen years earlier).

Old Dolores looks out into the hallway, and sees a phantom version of Selena (at age five or so) come up the stairs, deeply engaged in a game of hide and seek with a young Dolores who is impossibly young and vibrant.  Folks, pardon me if I get weird for a second, but I find this briefly-glimpsed version of young Dolores to be incredibly attractive.  This is perhaps an indication of just how amazingly good the hair and makeup is elsewhere in the film; I get the sense that THIS is the real Kathy Bates, coming out to play oh so briefly.

She turns into a literal ghost for a few moments right before our very eyes, and...

...we cut back to the "real" Dolores, who has had all the color sucked from her life.  This idea of color being drained from life is a thread that runs throughout the novel (and its companion, Gerald's Game, as well).

And then, the "real" Dolores herself turns into something of a ghost, in the subconscious sense.  It is a mere trick of editing to denote the passage of a brief amount of time.  But it also connotes a less brief passage of time; this sequence suggests that time is always passing, and that in the grand scheme of things, it is a mere blink of time before ghosts are made of all of us.

Sure enough, Hackford and Warner use the type of transition numerous times during the film.  This suggests to me that it is one of the film's primary concerns: whispering into our ear of the need for understanding that this is all quite transitory.

Even in the midst of life, we are ghosts waiting to be born.

Here are a few of my favorite such transitions in the film:

This brings us to one of the subplots I've not mentioned much: the sad fate of Vera Donovan.  King deals with Vera's physical and mental deterioration a good bit in the novel; the movie has less time to play with, so it basically only has one scene for this subplot.

Everyone makes the most of it, though.  Judy Parfitt is gut-wrenchingly good in the scene, which involves Vera "waking up" (returning to mental clarity) for a bit.  She asks Dolores how long she's been "out," and then begins weeping.  She wants Dolores to bring her her china pig, so Dolores goes over to the cabinet where it is kept:

This curio cabinet full of china pigs is almost unbearably sad to me.  You live a life, and you pour your love into the things you enjoy, and in the end, they are just things that will gather dust if you don't have someone to keep them cleaned.  I type that, and then glance behind me, where I see an enormous set of shelves containing my collection of King books.  Those, perhaps, are my china pigs; or perhaps these blog posts themselves are my china pigs, and on some day in the future, some version of me will want one of them and will not know how to ask for just the right one.

But hey!  Maybe there'll be a Dolores there to know what just the right one is:

What a sad, sweet little china pig that one is.  Dolores winds it up and it plays a tinkly version of "Happy Days Are Here Again," which from Vera's point of view they most certainly are not.

The pig seems to work on her for a few moments, though.  She quiets herself, and we think that she has been lulled by the pig and its sweet little song.

She hasn't, though.  She is clear enough mentally that in this moment she knows: happy times are never coming again, not ever.  This is the moment that precipitates her decision to fling herself down the staircase in the hopes of stopping her suffering; the happy days may never come again, but perhaps the sad ones can go away forever.

Elsewhere in the film, earlier, we've seen this:

And ain't it the truth?

These scenes with the elderly Vera are among the rawest, most difficult to watch, and most honest in all of the movies based on King films.  There aren't really all that many films that deal with the lonely grief of being old and miserable; it's just too horrible a topic for most movies to touch on.  But Dolores Claiborne touches on it in a memorable fashion.  Parfitt is amazing, as is every bit of the makeup and hair and costuming that went into helping her transform into this aspect of her character.  Bates meets her at every turn, but these are Parfitt's moments to shine, and shine she does.

Alright, next up: the scene in which Joe attacks Dolores with a piece of firewood.

Dolores is talking to Selena, and looks over at her, imagining...

...that she sees Joe come walking in the door that he walked in so many times years ago.

We disappear wholly into the past for a while, and see what appears to be an effortless (and harmless) rapport between father and daughter.

Joe's pants have seen better days.

Dolores notices this and...

...cannot stop herself from laughing.  Bates is especially wonderful here.

In the novel, it seems to be the case that it is the laughter that sets Joe off into violence.  But there is an excellent and very subtle addition (by screenwriter Tony Gilroy) in the movie.  Joe gets a little po-faced after Dolores laughs, but I don't think he would have hit her based on this.  He decides to go after her a bit verbally, though, and reminds her that her father used to scrub his father's boats' hulls.  (Unless I've forgotten it, this St.-George-over-Claiborne bit of class warfare is not in the novel.)  Dolores unwisely reminds him that if he hadn't lost those boats, they'd be a lot better off.

This is the moment in which Joe decides Dolores is going to pay.  His inadequacies have been thrown into his face; he cannot -- WILL not -- countenance this.  But, crucially, he cannot allow her to know that this is what sets him off; to do that would be to admit that her words had a power over him.

So he puts on a falsely cheery tone, and returns to her joke about his pants.

She laughs again; less honestly than before, but still keeping a good mood.

She turns her back on Joe, and...

...he attacks.  "Why'd you make me do it?" he asks.  It is a shockingly effective moment of abuse.  If you don't know from the novel that it is on the way, it plays almost like a cobra strike, so quick and violent it is.  It is a horribly awesome moment.

Joe settles in for the night, secure in his dominance, but also visibly rattled; not so much by his own violence, one imagines, as by the truth Dolores had wounded him with.

It's not the only way in which Dolores is going to wound this sack of shit.

Just as effective as the moment in which Joe attacks Dolores is the retribution.

You get the slightest hint that it is coming: you can just barely hear Dolores's footsteps approaching, and you can just barely see her shadow darken the wall behind Joe.  Most people won't be paying attention quite closely enough to notice that, though, I'd imagine.  So:

Another cobra strikes.  This is all one shot; I don't know what it is they busted over David Strathairn's head, but he took one for the team in this moment, and no mistaking it.

"Guess what, Joe?  I ain't tired anymore."

Strathairn is excellent here; I swear I think he might have just allowed Bates to bust an actual pitcher of cream over his head so as to be method in the moment.  He seems genuinely terrified AND genuinely enraged all at once.

Hit me again, promises Dolores, "one of us is goin to the boneyard."  She's badass as fuck here.

It's a fine sequence, alright, one of my favorites.

The St. George vs. Claiborne Fight Night series returns later on, when we find out the details of how she did him in for good.  By this point, we know the why; it's the how that is left dangling.

This, of course, is the eclipse scene.  For some viewers, it doesn't work thanks to its blue-screen artificiality (which we will see plenty of momentarily).  I'll go ahead and say now, though, that I think it is gorgeous; whatever one loses in the "reality" of the visuals, I think one gains in the immediacy of the performances, which are almost certainly heightened by the ability to be in a studio and get everything just right.

Anyways, it's not really possible -- as Hackford points out on his commentary -- to photograph an eclipse.  first, you gotta wait for one; and then, there's no light.  So good luck with that.  Studio is the only way to go here.

Plus, I can concoct thematic reasons why the artificiality of the effects/studio combination work in the movie's favor rather than to its disadvantage.  It's a reflection of Joe's drunkenness; a reflection of Dolores's unleashed rage; a reflection of the surreality of the eclipse itself.  If I'm imposing the content of the novel upon the proceedings, I could even see it as a reflection of Vera's "eye" somehow peeking in on the proceedings; that'd be going too far, I think, but I could do it.  Bottom line is, I've got multiple avenues to take in finding a way not to be grumpy about this sequence.

And the bottom line is also this: I don't need a one of 'em.  The sequence works on me emotionally, and that's all that matters.

Let's have a look:

This is on location.

Pretty great lens flare here; possibly created by the effects department rather than by the cinematography.

By this point we have shifted from the location to the set, which had a 360-degree blue-screen (or possibly a green-screen, I can't remember) built around it.

Is it obvious that that's what it is?  I mean, yeah, but ... well, it's probably only obvious to viewers who are familiar enough with how movies are made to at least know something different is going on.  I bet if my parents watched, they'd have no idea.  This is not to knock my parents; they just don't watch movies in that way.  And anyways, who cares that it looks fake?  It looks awesome.  I know a painting hanging on a wall is a bunch of oil and canvas, not an actual whatever; doesn't make me want to not enjoy seeing it.

Dolores reveals that she has gotten almost all of the money back, thanks to the bank.

It doesn't all screencap terribly well, but both Bates and Strathairn do their own stunts through most of this sequence.  For example, Joe flings Dolores onto the ground, and that's Kathy Bates, just gettin' flung right onto a bunch of studio-made grass.  And the two of them are pushing each other around, running like lunatics through the yard, and so forth.

It's a very physical sequence, and there's not a huge amount of editing in it.  I can't say enough about how good both actors are during it.

I don't know if it's Bates and Strathairn or not, but it's pretty damn cool when Dolores leaps across the wellcap...

...and Joe goes crashing through it.


I'm reminded of the excellent line from the novel (which comes after Dolores finds herself briefly thinking kindly of Joe during the leadup to the eclipse).  "Then I hardened by heart."  You see it happen, right here on screen.

Joe finally drops all the way in.

It's not as orgasmic-looking in motion as it is in still-image form; but hey, if the shoe fits...

Excellent effects work on the eclipse itself, which I'm guessing most viewers simply assume is an eclipse, somehow captured on film.

Dolores shines a flashlight into the well in an attempt to ascertain whether Joe is dead; fireworks explode in the background.

A seemingly conscious evocation of the novel... way to an awesome ghostly transition.
If this sequence has one problem, it's that the well itself -- which was built on a set, you will recall -- does not seem to be even vaguely deep enough to kill someone who fell into it.  But you don't really get that great a glimpse of it; you do not, for example, see Joe lying at the bottom.  That, too, is perhaps a problem.  But the movie's focus is on the immediacy of Dolores's emotions, especially her relief for this monster to finally be killed; there was no room for anything else, so I don't blame Hackford for steering clear of showing Joe in there.
Well, that's as good an opportunity as any for me to transition over to a list of notes I made while listening to Hackford's commentary track, recorded for the 1998 DVD and ported over to the 2017 Blu-ray.  It's one of the best commentaries I've ever heard from a single participant: Hackford talks the entire time, and is full is insightful and illuminating anecdotes.
Here are some of the notes I took:
  • Tony Gilroy's screenwriting services were recommended by William Goldman, who worked on the film (and was credited) as a consultant.  Goldman, of course, had written Misery for Castle Rock.
  • Kathy Bates was signed onto the project before Hackford himself.  In other words, the project was built around her.
  • Hackford consciously wanted to make a "women's picture."  Now, now, look: settle the fuck down.  This was twenty years ago, don't y'all get riled up about this.  Anyways, he was drawn to the project because it WAS a strong vehicle for female actors and characters.  That sort of thing is arguably still in short supply in 2018; in 1995, it was even more so.
  • Dolores's house was built from top to bottom on location; it was a full, functional house, and was completely torn down again once filming was complete so as not to leave a lasting impact on the area.  This is an excellent reminder of how good the production design on the movie was.  
  • Beristain's differing color palettes for the present and the past were accomplished partly by the use of different film stocks.  The transitions were aided by the special effects department.
  • Judy Parfitt is apparently British!  She was recommended to Hackford by his wife, Helen Mirren.  Damn, Taylor Hackford; good for you, pal!  And they're still together, by the way.  Anyways, Judy Parfitt.  Bates was apparently present when she came in and auditioned, and was more or less blown away.  "Who the fuck is that?!?" she asked Hackford.
  • The paintings of RenĂ© Magritte were a major inspiration to Hackford in his visual planning of the film.  At least three visually striking scenes were directly drawn from his work: the bit in which Dolores shatters a window; the shot of the house under a blood-red sky; and the creepy moment in which Selena sees the back of her own head in a mirror.
  • Hackford takes numerous opportunities to point out the great work of his collaborators.  "You are as good as the collaborators you work with," he says; and he's right.
  • In one of my posts about the novel, I was all pleased with myself for noticing that the name "Dolores" is like the word "dolorous."  Well, I clearly got that idea straight from Hackford, who points it out here.  He ain't wrong!
  • There was apparently more to the murder of Joe than what ended up in the film.  Hackford says Joe coming out of the well was filmed, but eventually discarded.  Man, I'd love to see that footage.
  • Apparently, the entire inquest scene was refilmed so as to improve its clarity.  This immediately makes me think there is a more subtle -- and superior -- version in the Warner Bros. vaults somewhere.  Hackford indicates that the footage is going to be on the DVD, but this, alas, did not come to pass; nor is it on the Blu-ray.
And so forth.  It's an awesome commentary; if you like this movie, it is highly recommended.
Alright, well, let's touch just a few more brief points I wanted to mention, mainly as a means of clearing out the remainder of my screencaps:
I'm sure I had a reason for taking this one.

Lookit ol' John C. Reilly!  He's actually quite good here, playing a small-town lawman who in the end gently refuses to kowtow to expectations.  He just calls 'em like he sees 'em, and that's not a bad thing to say about a fellow.

An actual house, but one built by the production designers.  Incredible.

That's a very poorly drawn butt, which makes it all the more realistic.

There's a shot -- screencapped earlier -- in which Dolores's face fades into a shot of the ocean.  It then goes out of focus...

...and the camera shows us the shattered window of the house, over which...

Dolores places a wooden board.  Nice little shot; nothing fancy, but effective.

Am I crazy or does Jennifer Jason Leigh look a lot like Corey Feldman here?

Beautiful Canadian locations stood in quite nicely for Maine.

Am I crazy or does Kathy Bates look a lot like Joe Don Baker here?

Oh, yeah, now I remember why I took that one screencap!  It was so I could do an after-and-before comparison of the Donovan house as reflected by the cinematography.  Boy, the present-day one is bleak, ain't it?

"Edgar Clentine" is evidently a sort of inside joke Tony Gilroy has with himself.  Hackford says on the commentary that someone of that name appears in all of Gilroy's films.  I cannot verify the veracity of this claim.

Boy, Christopher Plummer is great in this scene.  He asks Selena why she stayed at the hotel where she was employed, and...

...Selena says it was because she got paid more to work extra hours.

"So this was all about the money," Mackey practically purrs, looking straight at Dolores.

This shot is cool, I guess, but it falls 100% flat for me.

Dolores, in slow motion, shatters this window, and the pieces fall slowly.  The visuals set up the expectation that...

...the falling pieces are going to reveal some sort of truth beneath it.  But instead, it cuts to a lame scene of Eric Bogosian, playing Selena's editor/lover.  Nothing is revealed; this transition does not work in any way.  I strongly suspect that some other sequence was intended to go here, but got changed in the editing, but Hackford could not bear to cut the elaborate breaking-glass shot.  He should have cut it.

Based on Magritte, but I'm not sure on what painting.

I didn't know who Jean Harris was.

I knew who Richard Nixon was.

Looky there!  Bob Gunton, only a year after his big role in The Shawshank Redemption!

You can kind of tell that this well is nowhere near as deep as it ought to be.

Why does Vera send Dolores home on the day of the eclipse?  Clearly, she is hinting that this might be a good day for Joe to be killed, but the movie version of her has no reason whatsoever to think this specific day might be conducive to that sort of thing.  In the novel, she doesn't send Dolores home; her party is going to be on the ferry, and there's no housekeeping to do on a ferry.  But the movie needs Vera to send her home and so she does.  It's an instance of exceptionally poor adaptation, but I think they kind of get away with it.

It's not in this exact moment, but there's an exchange during the leadup to the eclipse that I can't skip mentioning.  Dolores tells Joe she knows about the stolen money; this rattles him, but he recovers quickly.  "Well, don't you look sour?" he asks, and laughs.  "I guess it is pretty funny, ain't it?" answers Dolores.  This is almost a word for word repetition of what Joe said to her in his moment of false hilarity right before he whacked her with the firewood.  And you just know she knows what she's saying.  She is 100% cold-blooded in that moment, and I love it.

Ellen Muth plays young Selena.  she would go on to be the star of the Showtime series Dead Like Me, which is pretty great.

That image is based on the Magritte painting "Not to Be Reproduced," which I am about to reproduce:
It's not entirely clear why Hackford had such a boner for Magritte on this film, but it resulted in some memorable shots, so you'll hear no complaints from me.
And that, folks, is that for my review of the movie Dolores Claiborne.  We're not quite done with Little Tall Island yet, though; I also want to write a "review" of the Tobias Picker opera (which I have neither seen nor heard and am unable to find, hence the qualifier), as well as a review of the Danny Elfman score.
See you once I've got one or the other of 'em pounded out!


  1. Mr. Burnette:

    I always have a bit of affinity for movies that are shot around here, but it needs more than that for me to like them completely. I like this completely.

    It’s hard to go wrong with Kathy Bates and Christopher Plummer and they both really seem to be on their games here.

    Wouldn’t you say that all houses are haunted with memories to some degree, at least?

    I do see the Corey Feldman thing. So you’re not crazy.


    1. I'd say that all houses ARE haunted by memory, yes. If you've lived in them, they are your memories; if you have not, they are the memories of those who have, to which you likely have no access. Maybe brand-new houses are off the hook.

  2. 1. I can remember being blown-away by this movie when I first saw it. For me, there was nothing wrong with the inquest scene. After Selena getting her memory back (I specifically turned away from the screen at a particular point)nothing about this felt out of place.

    Looking back in my memory, this whole scene had an air of wrapping things up, and I'm not so sure it needed to be anything else.

    2. That screen grab of ghost Dolores with the Island fading in does two thing simultaneously for me. First, it reminds me ever so fleetingly of Linoge. This only works if you've seen "Storm of the Century" first, but it makes for a neat, unintentional callback.

    Second, for whatever reason, it triggers the title credits song from "The Dead Zone". At no point in the "DC" does that song appear, yet it just feels like it should have.

    3. I'd agree that it works better than "Misery". I said I came away more impressed with the book than the film. Now I think the main reason might be that William Goldman gave the audience too much breathing space in what is supposed to be a tightly packed, claustrophobic narrative. The audience should almost feel like it's having trouble breathing by the end.

    This continuing motif of letting the tension out of the proceedings also applies to how the screenplay never quite ratchets things up to the beyond crazy point. As a result, the actors have less to work with than they could have. Bates should have been allowed to be more serious, and therefore more terrifying, while Caan should have been allowed to rediscovery his inner Sonny Corleone and one point.

    To give an idea of what I mean, imagine Bryan Cranston as Paul, looking at Bates like a very smug cobra and asking: "Who is we? There is no WE, Annie". That's the kind of level I think the film needed to reach, where we go from fearing for the main character to wondering just how trustworthy anyone is in the story.

    To be concluded.


    1. Concluded from above.

      4. The funny thing is, that before picture of Vera's estate looks eerily similar to a mass market paperback copy of Straub's "Ghost Story", now I think of it.

      5. I really have to give props to David Strathern in this film. Imagine how odd it is to his character here after his portrayal of the silent, stoical, yet reliable Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck".

      6. I really do like that screenshot of the eclipse with an orange-red sky in the background. I almost wonder what the reaction would have been if they had a visual trick so that after a beat, it looked like an eye blinking; like it was no longer a conjunction of Sun and Moon, bur like it had transformed into part of celestial face while no one was paying attention.

      And it's that train of thought that switch's the internal soundtrack in my head from "Dead Zone" to Jethro Tull's "Watching Me, Watching You" (warning, the following clip contains a near constant strobe light effect; EPILEPTIC VIEWERS SHOULD CONSIDER THIS A TERMINAL WARNING!):

      7. The Magritte painting is called "The Empire of Light if I remember correctly. Jackson Browne used a variant of it for the cover of his "Late for the Sky album:

      I personally consider it a work of artistic beauty, however I can also understand how Hackford would draw on this style to create a sense of unease and unreality to the proceedings.


    2. 1. I don't disagree with you, per se; I think the climax of the movie works well enough. I just can't help wishing it had been inspired in some way, and had kicked the movie into an even grander gear. But I'm selfish: I want it all, and I want it now. (It ain't much I'm asking!)

      2. That Michael Kamen score for "The Dead Zone" is awfully good. Sneakily so, I'd say; every time I hear it, it seems better. Quintessentially King-ian, which is true of virtually all the scores for King movies up through ... oh ... shoot, everything until at least "Children of the Corn," and maybe even further into the eighties than that.

      Curious: is there a specific shot of Linoge you're thinking of? (Sidebar: BOY, do I love "Storm of the Century.")

      3. Hmm. Those are interesting points about "Misery." I can see where you're coming from. I'm okay with the movie they made (which I do love, for the most part), but would happily also see the type of adaptation you're advocating for. And I'd go nuts to see Cranston in that role; that's a thing that needs to happen ASAP.

      4. Right! I think I know the edition you refer to. If so, I've got a copy, and love it.

      5. At the time, I think I knew him primarily from "Sneakers," which he is GREAT in. He's great in everything, though; especially "Good Night, and Good Luck."

      6. Well, the notion of the eclipse being a blinking eye would have resonance with the novel, that's for sure. It might have been a bit much for most viewers, though.

      I've never much cared for Jethro Tull, but this is a pretty good performance. Dude can play the guitar.

      7. Thanks! (And thanks for the comments in general, as always.)

    3. 2. I'm not thinking of any specific shot of Linoge from the miniseries. It's just that the screen-cap was enough to work as a neat bit of callback.

      For those who saw "Storm" first, it's just a nice shot that, hopefully, reminds them that this little island is far from ordinary.


    4. I look forward mightily to the day when I get to ... uh ... spend a month or so dissecting "Storm of the Century" for my blog. That's gonna be fun, fun, fun ever after daddy takes the T-Bird away.

  3. Great review. I just saw this film for the first time a few months ago (25 years removed from my experience of reading the novel).

    I agree that the entire cast is great, but I was particularly impressed with David Strathairn. He took what could have easily been a cardboard caricature of the Drunk Abusive Husband and brought so much subtlety to the role (as you mention examining the firewood scene). The scene on the ferry is amazing: he looks scared and disgusted with himself as he sexually assaults his daughter. It brings a new level to a scene that's already horrible - it makes it unbearably sad, as if this character truly believes he has no choice but to victimize his own child, like this will somehow make things better rather than doing something irredeemable that will effectively mar her for life. Strathairn brings that to the scene, which could have just been gross and awful.

    Those transition stills are beautiful, nice work man.

    1. Thanks! Those turned out really well. (I can't take any credit for that; all I did was go frame by frame and find the best ones -- but I was super happy with them.)

      I totally agree about the Strathairn-on-the-ferry scene, which is gross and disturbing but honest, and therefore useful. Not every actor would be willing to do that sort of thing; not every actor would be capable of succeeding once they accepted. He's probably one of the most underrated guys in the business.

  4. (1) I only saw this once, actually, and that was for the first time after reading the book in 2012. There was a month where they were fixing the roof on my building, and I had to unspool 50 ft of cable cord (this seems like it should be longer ago than 2012) and set up the tv and dvd in the room off the kitchen down the hall. Every movie we watched during this month has a special shine around it in my memory (even the few I fell asleep during.) I stayed awake for this one, though. What I remember most about it is the perfectly staged eclipse scene, the big house and beating the sheets outside of it, thoughts on Maine, and the color scheme of now vs. then. I have a very positive memory of the film altogether, but reading this reminds me of the many things my memory has edged off to one side.

    (2) Good breakdown of JJL's performance here, and I agree: the ending should have emphasized the breakthrough on its own or hinted at more. I do like the embrace of her mother, which works thematically fine enough, but dramatically, something bigger to frame that breakthrough would've pushed the film over the finish line.

    (3) I mean, it makes the finish line on its own steam just fine, but the distance between Shawshank and this might've been covered. Who knows? An intriguing What If...?

    (4) That fade from Kathy Bates' face after seeing her ghost hide-and-seek to the Little Tall Island establishing shot is really haunting. Beautifully filmed movie.

    (5) "Even in the midst of life, we are ghosts waiting to be born." Nicely done - these screencaps drive this home exceptionally. It's a good way to put into words what this visual motif accomplishes, and DC is a wonderful book to hang such a visual motif upon.

    (6) China pigs as one more metaphor for this ghost motif, too.

    (7) Crazy that they built that house for the production! Perfectly done. Set design in general: full marks.

    (8) Not crazy. Corey Feldman and Martha Plimpton merging into one: The Goonies sequel we never got, in this one shot.

    (9) And not crazy on Joe Don Baker either. Jaysus!

    (10) Chris C - I saw "Storm" first and I thought of it more than a few times throughout. I mean, there's the Little Tall connection and all, but its remarkable how visually consistent both productions are in a lot of ways.

    1. (6.5) Also: the China pigs come back in DUMA KEY, but with much more purpose/ chess-strategy for the plot. Which is not to say better-used than here, but just another example of how masterfully crafted DK really is.

    2. (6.5 pt 2) Not that the China Pigs SPECIFICALLY come back, but as part of King's toolkit, I mean.

    3. (1) That's an excellent reason/way to remember ANY movie, especially a fundamentally good one like this.

      (2) I suppose there's room to argue that the end "falling flat" could be indicative of the notion that the rift between mother and daughter is too deep to ever heal in a Hollywood-ending manner. Which would be a valid way to go; but I don't think the movie goes there, either. I don't think it really knows what it's after in those final moments, and so it just kind of ... ends. But hey, great movie nonetheless.

      (3) Agreed. What-ifs are hard to avoid for bloggers, I guess. And as I dug into this movie I had a deep suspicion that the answer to "what if they had stuck the landing as hard as they stick most of the rest?" was "it'd be considered a classic."

      (4) It really is.

      (5) I'd say that if you ranked all of the King movies based on the quality of their cinematic language, this'd be in the top 5. Maybe even top 3; only "The Shining" beats it with a certainty in my mind (although I'd probably put DePalma's "Carrie" ahead of it as well, and maybe "The Dead Zone").

      (6) The more I think about that scene of the movie, the more haunting it seems to me.

      As for "Duma Key," boy am I looking forward to rereading that one. I remember so very little about it, except for the fact that I reeeeeaaaalllly enjoyed it.

      (8) Martha Plimpton! Oh, yeah, for sure; I see that, too. (And kudos on that Goonies-sequel comment; I got a good laugh out of that.)