January 1, 2020

Misery (1990)
Grade: 64/100

Director: Rob Reiner
Stars: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth

What it's about. Bestseller author James Caan drives off the road during a severe winter storm in flyover country. He is rescued, or so it seems, by Kathy Bates, a former nurse.

She pulls him from his car and sets him up in a bedroom of her farm house, where she lives alone with only distant neighbors. Caan has serious injures that keep him bedridden for weeks. It becomes clear that Bates is a psychopath who seeks to make Caan a prisoner in her house, cranking out historical fiction novels featuring the heroine Misery, her favorite character of his.

Caan tries to humor his unstable oppressor, while seeking a way to escape, perhaps while she is in town buying supplies. Or, perhaps he can drug her, or even kill her. Alas, Bates foils all his schemes.

But there is hope that the Law, personified by aged local sheriff Richard Farnsworth, will catch up to Bates. Caan certainly can't depend on his agent, Lauren Bacall, to rescue him, since she apparently never leaves her office.

How others will see it. Films based on Stephen King novels are typically popular, and Misery was not an exception. The movie made a star out of Kathy Bates, and returned James Caan to A-list status. The success of Misery also confirmed the range of director Rob Reiner, at the time best known for comedies.

Misery is indeed popular. At imdb.com, it has a high 170K user votes and a lofty user rating of 7.8 out of 10. Women over 45, the most independent and thus most interesting demographic, grade the film even higher at 8.0.

One would presume that the user reviews would be glowing. And indeed they are, full of praise for the suspense, acting, script, direction, and story. One has to hunt for negative comments, and they mostly come from King fans who wanted the movie to be more like the book. There are also folks who don't like horror movies, and others who wanted the film to be more blatantly in the horror genre.

How I felt about it. Author Stephen King admitted in an interview, years after writing "Misery", that the book was an allegory about his battle with addiction. Kathy Bates represented the drugs controlling his life, and James Caan represented King's isolation and inability to escape.

The allegory is interesting, but I compare the film with Fatal Attraction (1987), another commercially successful horror-romance which also had a man of the world pursued by an aggressive and insane woman, culminating in a life-or-death one-on-one struggle. In both cases, our protagonist is the normal man trying to escape from the crazy chick. Fatal Attraction was nominated for six Oscars and four Golden Globes, including Best Picture and Best Actress, but took home no trophies. Misery was nominated for only a single Oscar and one Golden Globe, but won both, for Kathy Bates' performance.

Bates indeed does a good job, as does Caan. Richard Farnsworth is not up to their standards, but his chemistry with Frances Sternhagen is entertaining, and it is engaging to see a senior citizen solving major crimes.

All along, the story implies that Farnsworth will rescue Caan and jail Bates, but his demise is hardly original. In The Stepfather (1987), the would-be rescuer (Jim Ogilvie) is murdered by the crazy assailant (Terry O'Quinn) who is in turn killed in self-defense by the victim (Jill Schoelen).

But a better-known example is The Shining (1980), also from a Stephen King novel, which has the same outcome with Scatman Crothers, Jack Nicholson, and Shelly Duvall in the respective roles of rescuer, killer, and victim.

Misery is certainly better than Fatal Attraction, The Stepfather, or The Shining. The latter had Nicholson in the lead, and the esteemed Stanley Kubrick as director, but somehow fell short. The reason is that Misery has a better, more credible story. And nobody pulls any punches: Caan suffers grievously despite his ultimate survival. Credit must also be given to the writer, William Goldman, a double Academy Award winner for Best Adapted Screenplay (All the President's Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).