Friday, May 27, 2011

Stephen King Month: Dolores Claiborne (1995)

I always thought of Dolores Claiborne as unfairly underrated compared to more well-known "serious" Stephen King movies like The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me and The Green Mile, but watching it again this week I noticed a lot more flaws than I remembered. I still think it's unfairly underrated, and I also think it's an interesting kind of departure for King, not going for the inspirational uplift of those other "serious" movies, but also sticking to realism and a fairly grounded story without resorting to supernatural horror. It's a drama with a bit of a thriller in it, but mostly it's a character study of a woman who endured a lifetime of emotional abuse and tried hard not to pass that on to her daughter. And in that sense, it often succeeds quite well.

Kathy Bates brings a steely intensity to her performance as Dolores, a strong woman who mostly keeps her head down and does what she needs to do to get by, except when life pushes her so hard that she has to push back. It's a very different performance from the one Bates gave in Misery, but it's effective in its own less flashy way. Jennifer Jason Leigh is not quite as impressive as Dolores' daughter Selena, who returns to their small Maine island village when her mother is accused of murder. Dolores didn't kill the rich old woman she was taking care of, but she did kill Selena's abusive father (David Strathairn) 18 years before, and the movie switches between the two time periods as we learn what pushed Dolores over the edge.

Director Taylor Hackford navigates the two time periods well, but some of the emotional reveals are a little clunky. Leigh has a long courtroom speech at the end of the movie that lays things out far too neatly, and her relationship with her boss back in New York never feels like it matters. King's not known for writing great female characters, and Selena isn't as fully realized as Dolores. But Dolores is one of King's most interesting protagonists, and Hackford (along with screenwriter Tony Gilroy) mostly keeps her from becoming a stereotypical victim or a stereotypical bitch (even though one of her trademark lines is "Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto"). Selena, however, is a little more the stereotype of the brooding, ungrateful daughter, who left for the big city at the first opportunity. As we learn more about Dolores, we understand the tough choices she had to make, but as we learn more about Selena, she mostly just comes off as more selfish (even if she too was mistreated).

The wrap-up is too tidy, and the grudge held by a detective (Christopher Plummer) against Dolores for getting away with her husband's murder lacks the proper intensity. Still, Bates and Leigh play off each other well in the scenes that find them tearing into each other, and the dark drama offers probably the most realistic approach of any King movie. Not all of it works, but that parts that do deserve a second look from people who may have dismissed this movie as not up to the standards of other prestige King adaptations.

How far to Castle Rock: Accent-wise, this gives Pet Sematary a run for its money as the Maine-iest King movie, but there's no mention of Castle Rock (although Dolores does reference Shawshank Prison).

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