Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Star is Borne: "Dolores Claiborne" (1995)

Stephen King's change of pace novel was brought triumphantly to the screen...and fizzled at the box office and award shows. Now is the time to rediscover one of the best films of the 1990's.

Kathy Bates is the title character, who is under suspicion after her battleaxe employer is found at the bottom of a staircase with Bates holding a marble rolling pin over her head. Cue angry pill popping alcoholic New York City reporter daughter Jennifer Jason Leigh who is called home to Bates' aid. Bates is the town weirdo, and lawman Christopher Plummer wants to put her away for good, considering her first escape from a murder charge.

Almost twenty years before, Bates was implicated but not prosecuted in her abusive husband David Strathairn's death. The film then takes two courses: a modern day mystery, as Dolores' relationship with her employer reveals the death not to be cut and dried; and what really happened on the day of the eclipse eighteen years ago when Dolores' husband fell down an abandoned well. A basic plot summary cannot do justice to such an outstanding film.

Kathy Bates does a better job here than in "Misery," as Dolores is completely unapologetic about her actions over the years. Jennifer Jason Leigh is also great in a role that goes beyond "bitter daughter," as she and her mother try to get along despite some very deep dark secrets. Christopher Plummer is also good as the obsessed investigator who decides he will make some kind of murder charge stick to Dolores. David Strathairn is one of the most evil characters of all time, becoming a domestic nightmare, but not in the TV movie sense. His first initial act of violence with Bates is both disgusting and shocking. John C. Reilly is also good in an early role as a constable.

Placed in Maine, and filmed in Nova Scotia, the location is absolute perfection. This is the cold ruddy setting of all of King's novels, and the best east coast small town since "Needful Things." Hackford, who has done such quality work in the past, shows King's novel a real reverence that is often missing from other King adaptations. He does a professional job, both with the eclipse sequences, and especially with the smooth transitions in the film from past to present and back again. No blurry or black and white sequences, you know when and where you are constantly.

"Dolores Claiborne" ranks with "Christine" and "The Dead Zone" as one of the best big screen adaptations of King's work, which have become the stuff of television miniseries lately. This is not a horror film, if you appreciate the nuances of Agatha Christie's murder mysteries, or just a good detective story, check this out.

In case you haven't figured it out, I definitely recommend it. (* * * * *) out of five stars.