'Misery' depicts basic terror: the editor from hell

November 30, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Misery" is about the eternal battle of the human race -- not the fight between men and women or fathers and sons or armies of the night, but something far more fundamental: between those who write and those who think they can fix it. It's a horror movie about editing.

The film, expertly adapted from a Stephen King novel by William Goldman and astutely directed for maximum psychological intensity by Rob Reiner, is certainly the best King adaption since "Cujo," quite an amusing, nasty little piece of work.

James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, an extremely successful but critically despised romance novelist, who has written a string of best-selling potboilers starring a character named "Misery Chastain." But as a character, Misery is murdering Paul, much in the way Holmes wore down Doyle and Smiley crushed le Carre. Thus, on the last page of Book No. 8 he kills her off and retreats to a Colorado resort to write what he considers a "real" novel.

The movie opens on the day he finishes it; after a minor, solitary celebration he heads down the mountain and the new life of literary celebrityhood. Enter, stage left, on cue from Central Weather (and King's stolidly unoriginal imagination), one snow storm. Even the atmosphere, it seems, wants Misery to live, or Paul to die; it blows him off the road.

But he's rescued from his overturned Mustang by the stocky, plunging, implacable figure of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), former nurse, now complete recluse who removes him to her isolated farmhouse. At first Annie seems every novelist's fantasy: adoring, caring, nurturing, grateful for the opportunity, demur in his radiant, if injured and bedridden, presence. Soon, however, it develops that her interest in Sheldon is more than literary; it's wacko.

The movie thus amounts to a darkly humorous cat-and-mouse game between the injured, weakened man and the plucky, banal, demented woman. Bates makes Annie so aggressively chipper, so earnest and straightforward, so sure of herself, so smug, that the movie is really about conflicting sensibilities: Paul's dark irony and sense of self-deprecation vs. Annie's deadpan certitude.

Bates is terrific. She lets us see the inner Annie by carefully crafted degree, each little outburst of irrationality or willfulness like one more color in a portrait of full-blooded dementia, driven even further when Annie discovers that Paul has killed off Misery and that his new novel is full of "swear words" (she herself explodes in weird bursts of ersatz profanity that speak far more menacingly of dark possibility than the bad words themselves).

The middle passage of the film is its most sheerly entertaining: Annie forces Paul to rescue Misery from death and write a new novel, bustling about the farmhouse like a Macy's balloon of Maxwell Perkins, muttering darkly, "No, no, Paul, this isn't any good, you've got to make it better!" Under the first level of the film, there's a horrifying portrait of the editing process, which must have warmed writer King's heart when he wrote it -- an editor out of sympathy with the writer, wanting him not to write the best book he can but the book she would write if she had the talent. It's about every novelist's worst fear: an editor from hell.

The movie turns violent at its end, after the "Fatal Attraction" model, and I suspect a typical critic will complain that this gore "ruins" the movie. Not this one. Reiner uses violence superbly, only resorting to it after having made it painfully clear that no other avenue lies open to Sheldon; he's in a fight for his life. Even then, he keeps it squalid, desperate and believable.

'Misery'

Starring James Caan and Kathy Bates.

Directed by Rob Reiner.

Released by Columbia.

Rated R.

***

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