Overview: When a car accident leaves famous author Paul Sheldon for dead in the middle of a blizzard, his life is saved by his number one fan, Annie Wilkes. As Paul recovers, he realizes that he isn’t just Annie’s patient. He’s her prisoner, and she’s got strong opinions about the next stage of his career. Columbia Pictures; 1990; Rated R; 107 minutes.
Cold Comfort Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 1987 novel manages what very few adaptations of the master of horror’s works manage to do. While things that go bump in the night often take precedence when we talk about King, we too often forget how much humor his stories contain. Horror and humor are strange siblings, and one can easily shift into the other, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. Misery, later revealed by the author to be an allegory for his own struggle and loneliness overcoming his addictions, certainly lends itself to horror and there’s little doubt that many famed genre directors could have succeeded on that front. But Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman do us one better than just sheer terror. They offer us cold comfort, a reprieve from the bleakness which allows the claustrophobia and nightmarish sweats to hit even harder. While Misery may not have the technical acumen of DePalma’s (who also managed to harness the humor of King), the empathy of Darabont, or the calculated concentration of Kubrick, it has the deft humor that Reiner built most of his career on. Misery leans into its absurdity and does this by allowing the actors to take center stage.
Oh, Paul: Nearly every major actor from Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Warren Beatty, and Harrison Ford were invited to take the role of Paul Sheldon, and all of them turned it down. All of them, except for James Caan. While he may not have been the first choice for the role, there’s brilliance in Caan’s casting. An always reliable actor, Caan is hardly a chameleon when it comes to his roles, and there’s an ever-present hard-edged 20th century masculinity to him. The idea of him not only playing a writer of romance novels, but a character who is immensely vulnerable for nearly the entirety of the film’s running time is a striking departure from the roles Caan usually portrayed. But Sheldon, a former slum kid, comes to life in Caan’s capable hands. The fact that we see an actor so often confined to macho-masculinity made weak, makes Misery all the more frightening. And Caan sells that fear and desperation so well. There’s a constant unease and panic in his eyes, and a crooked smiled offered as the realization sinks in that Annie isn’t quite sane. Sheldon is also a role that is in part overshadowed by Annie Wilkes, and Caan gives himself over to that eclipse of character.
Not a Movie Star Type: Annie Wilkes is considered by many, including King himself to be one his greatest antagonists, and so few King characters have been brought to life in that Kathy Bates brings Annie Wilkes to life. King describes her in the novel thusly:
her body was big but not generous. There was a feeling about her of clots and roadblocks rather than welcoming orifices or even open spaces, areas of hiatus. Most of all she gave him a disturbing sense of solidity, as if she might not have any blood vessels or even internal organs, as if she might be only solid Annie Wilkes from side to side and top to bottom. He felt more convinced that her eyes, which appeared to move, where actually just painted on…like an idol she gave only one thing: a feeling of unease deepening steadily toward terror.
Kathy Bates becomes this character so completely that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role (Jessica Lange was up for the part, before Bates was cast.) There’s an eagerness in which Bates portrays Wilkes, a clumsy lustfulness that comes not from Wilkes’ sexual experience but from years spent reading romance novels, memorizing them, and replacing reality with them. Reiner captures this overwhelming eagerness by consistently having us view Annie’s face in close-up shots, so that all of her emotions fill the entire frame to an overwhelming degree. We’re allowed to witness the subtle shifts and changes in her facial features, and even with that at our disposal it becomes impossible for the viewer to guess what she’ll do next. She’s entirely unpredictable, a factor which so many modern screen villains claw at but rarely succeed at. There’s so often a sense of pretend when it comes to portraying a madness, and it’s worn like a badge that says “look how crazy I am.”
But Bates portrays Wilkes’ mental instability like something that’s secreted away, a barely contained stew of pitch black cravings, suicidal thoughts, and feigned innocence, that’s always on the verge of bubbling over quickly and burning anyone in her vicinity. Take the moment of her first outburst for example. After reading the draft of Paul’s novel and criticizing the swearing, Paul tells her that everybody talks like that. Here response, “THEY DO NOT! What do you think I say when I go to the feed store in town, ‘Oh NOW Wally, give me a bag of that F—in’ pig feed, and ten pounds of that bitchly cow corn?’ And the bank do I tell Mrs. Bollinger, ‘Oh here’s one big bastard of a check, give me some of your Christ-ing money?’ is Paul’s first real confirmation that Annie isn’t well. Despite her motherly affectations, insistence on moral behavior, and the gold cross she wears around her neck, these only serve to mask and partially disguise the real truth of her solid, and unquestionable wrongness. Her further outbursts, each one poetry of the grotesque, are surprising and horrific, but they are also damn funny. Annie is absurd, King’s means of finger-pointing at his own absurd dependency issues. But like the woes of addiction, Annie is also sadly human and in some ways, despite her seeming control of Paul’s situation, is just as vulnerable as he is.
Misery’s House: There’s nothing stable about Misery. Every encounter between Paul and Annie feels electric, pregnant with tension, because it’s clear early on that this situation can only be a temporary one. Misery is ticking time-bomb. Every time Annie leaves Paul’s room, we know that it’s inevitable that she’ll come back at any moment, just as it’s inevitable that Paul’s legs will heal, that he’ll finish Misery’s Return, and that Annie will never let him escape alive. Reiner and Goldman balance multiple time-sensitive plotlines, each with different expiration dates that could each prove fatal. There’s a sequence when Paul escapes from his room for the first time in an effort to find a way out of Annie’s house where Reiner brilliantly cross-cuts between Paul’s actions, and Annie out on her errands. Wheelchair bound, Paul moves through the house in search of an escape and a weapon with what we know is a pain-staking hustle. We see the sweat on his brow, his arms pumping to move his chair through the narrow spaces of Annie’s house, but Reiner films Sheldon’s movements with a casual slowness, using close-ups and tight frames to limit the sense of motion. Annie on the other hand, who is driving to a local store to pick up typing paper for Paul, has no necessary reason to rush, to think that Paul can escape, but she’s given a mad fervor and a quickness that’s surprising for her size. While so much of Annie’s actions inside her house are framed in extreme close-ups, here the camera pulls back, giving her the sense of motion and hurry that Paul is denied. This cross-cutting editing and intentional disorientation of time creates of the film’s most hand-wringing scenes. But not all of Reiner’s astute handle of time can be chalked up to tension.
Richard Farsnworth and Frances Sternhagen are Misery’s unsung heroes. As Sheriff Buster and his wife Virginia, they provide Misery with ample comic-relief that feels expertly in line with King’s own folksy-branding of humor. While they may seem like the bumbling local law force at the onset, meant to highlight the hopelessness of Paul’s situation, they prove more capable than the state police looking into Paul’s supposed death. Buster’s investigation never seems hurried, so much so that it never feels like a real threat. But as the weeks pass, and Annie’s behavior becomes more erratic, Reiner returns to Buster and Virginia, who serve as a kind background hope. Reiner gives their investigation enough attention so that it never feels like deus ex machina, but never concentrates on it enough so that Misery feels like a procedural. This shifting in perspective and giving us a sense of the locals caught up in a horror they are not fully aware of is inherently King, and Reiner’s calculated handle of it is one of the many reasons that Misery is a top-tier King adaptation.
Writer’s Block: No discussion of Misery would be complete without talking about the horrific hobbling scene. In the novel, and original script, Annie chops off Paul’s left foot with an axe, but concerns over gore led to Reiner changing the instrument of pain to a sledgehammer which makes for a more effective scene of horror. What makes the viewer bite down on their shirt is how quickly the break happens. While most horror movie directors would draw the scene out, linger on the inevitable (like what DePalma does with the bucket of blood in Carrie), Reiner knows from his comedy background that sometimes the most effective way to shock an audience is to hit the mark without belaying the point. The time between the wooden block placed between Paul’s ankles and the initial break is so swift, and angle from which Reiner captures it, slightly to the left of Paul’s perspective, gives the moment a knee-buckling reality. And then when Annie moves to the right foot, Reiner doesn’t show the break again, we only hear the break before the camera moves up to Paul’s sweat-drenched, barely conscious face. The decision not to show the second break gives the first one more power. It becomes a perfectly captured moment of physical torment that isn’t lessened or gratuitous in an effort to one-up the moment. And to cap the scene off, Bates delivery off “God I love you” after that moment perfectly encapsulates the time, tone, and tension that make Misery great.
Overall: Amidst all the fear and absurdist humor, Misery captures a deeply affecting human sadness. “You’ll never know the fear of losing someone like you if you’re someone like me,” Annie says. In that moment, though we know she’s a monster, we sympathize with her. And when she comes back with, “I have this gun…Sometimes I think about using it. I’d better go now. I might put bullets in it,” our sympathy collides with our revulsion. And that is so often King’s modus operandi, to give us characters that makes us want to weep for them, but at the same time disgust us in their pathetic inability to grasp reality. King’s works make us face the human condition which we are a part of, makes us swim in the muck of compassion and distaste that defines our existence. That is what Reiner’s Misery manages to capture. We may grin with satisfaction when Annie meets her end and Paul stuffs the pages of his burnt novel in her mouth, shouting “Eat it till ya choke, you sick, twisted fuck!” but we can’t shake off the cold memory of Annie saying “The rain. Sometimes it gives me the blues.” Perhaps that’s what it all comes down to: the satisfaction of intense pleasure in the moment met with the memory being a captive to one’s own emotions and failures. That’s misery.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures