50 films: #5. Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990)

Misery is not a film of great depth. Neither is it a film of great visual style. What you see is what you get, and what you get is a faithful and in some respects, it might be contended, pedestrian adaptation of a pulpy horror novel. I love it.

Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is a writer who longs to be taken seriously but has fallen into the rut of writing a series of florid but marketable novels set in the 1870s featuring the central character Misery Chastain. To free himself from the shackles of Misery, Sheldon writes a serious and worthy autobiographical novel about life in a slum (which sounds just as dreary as his other books, but that’s by the by), his completion of which coincides with the publication of the final Misery book, Misery’s Child, in which Sheldon has killed off his heroine. As he travels home from the remote Colorado retreat where he traditionally goes to finish each book, his car comes off the road. He is rescued by Liberace-loving nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates).

Rescued isn’t exactly the right term, it turns out, since Wilkes turns out to be his ‘Number One Fan’. Her initial hero worship of Sheldon quickly becomes something more sinister, and when her discovery of Misery’s fate prompts a violent reaction he realises his life may be in danger. From this point, the film is a battle of wits between the two characters, as the incapacitated Sheldon plots his escape and the increasingly deranged Wilkes foils him at every turn. She also has to contend with the local police’s efforts to track down Sheldon after the discovery of his car. The film’s climax is gratifyingly gruesome.

If so much of the film is apparently unremarkable, what is it that makes it special? Primarily, I think, the character of Annie Wilkes and the performance of Kathy Bates, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar. Wilkes’ simple-mindedness, her puritanism and abhorrence of profanity, her stomach-churningly twee quirks of speech, all make her quite delightful to watch. She is giddily excited as she starts to read the latest Misery book. ‘What’s the ceiling that dago painted?’ she asks Sheldon. ‘The Sistine Chapel?’ he tentatively suggests. ‘Yeah! That and Misery’s Child – those are the only two divine things ever in this world!’ There is a dry vein of humour running through the film. Wilkes later complains, ‘People just don’t respect the institution of marriage any more,’ while she punctuates the air emphatically with the bottle of urine in her hand. The moments when she turns from harmless to menacing, when the eyes go dead, have the capacity to chill, provided you’re not laughing too much.

There are nice supporting turns from Richard Farnsworth, Frances Sternhagen and Lauren Bacall, but the film’s essentially a two-hander. Caan is perfect as Sheldon, tolerantly amused at Wilkes’ kookiness to begin with, and becoming more rebellious as he realises the fate she has planned for him. The end sees the liberated Sheldon (spoiler, I suppose, but the grammar of the genre permits no other possible outcome) reunited with his agent – but there is still a final little twist in store which is creepy and inspiredly comical in equal measure.

So there you have it. A black comedy, I’d say, with a lot of cheap thrills along the way – but there’s nothing wrong with cheap thrills. Like cheap music, they have their potency.

IMDb | Buy from Amazon.co.uk

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