Novelist Stephen King has perfected a signature blend of lurid phantasmagoria and gallows humor, and when filmmakers try to re-create it, they don’t always succeed. For every cinematic classic like Carrie or The Shawshank Redemption, there’s a clunker like Thinner or Needful Things. Director Rob Reiner has adapted King’s work twice; thanks to a similar popcorn-auteur sensibility, he made it look effortless. Reiner recognized the autobiographical undercurrent of ennui that King slyly inserted into Misery, the story of Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a mass-appeal author who feels trapped by his success. The tense, gripping thriller follows Sheldon as he recovers from a near-fatal car accident in the remote mountain home of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a jolly fangirl whose crazy-cat-lady wardrobe and memorable colloquialisms (”He didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car!”) belie a psychopath who’ll hold Paul captive, hobble his feet, and try to force him into a suicide pact.
Bates was virtually unknown before she played Wilkes; now, it’s impossible to see her in anything and not be reminded of this ferocious, Oscar-winning star turn — that’s how perfectly she embodies the role. In his commentary — something of a cheat, since it was actually recorded for a 2003 international DVD release — Reiner says that Bates was always the ”first and only choice” to play Annie, thanks to screenwriter William Goldman’s suggestion. Caan was another story. A who’s who of leading men (Redford, Hoffman, Beatty, Hackman, Dreyfuss…) turned down the role before he signed on. A physical actor by nature, Caan spent much of the shoot bedridden, and his frustration is palpable in what remains one of his finest performances. A trio of vets — Lauren Bacall, Frances Sternhagen, and the late, great Richard Farnsworth — draw welcome yuks in their brief scenes, but Bates and Caan simply dominate.
Misery builds economically to a climactic fight in which every scratch, ding, and wallop feels completely earned. The only misfire is an unnecessarily pedestrian coda, and in his commentary track (which is annoyingly separate from Reiner’s), Goldman admits that ”we’re scrambling here.” None of the other extras amount to much — there’s a slew of junky bits, like the exploitative how-to segment ”Advice for the Stalked” (”If that stalker calls, you hang up!”) and ”Diagnosing Annie Wilkes.” Come now, do we really need a psychologist to explain that Annie is bipolar? Doesn’t Bates convey that well enough?
Back to that hobbling scene: Reiner says many fans tell him that they consider it the most gruesome movie moment of all time. That’s a stretch, but…yeesh. Seventeen years later, it still brings me pain. The movie itself? Nothing but pleasure. B+