An Accident Can Be an Unhappy Woman’s Best Friend
Main Cast: Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Director: Taylor Hackford
While I love watching and reviewing Stephen King movies, there are a few on the list I don’t look forward to. Some because they’re bad movies. Some because they’re cheap movies. Some because I’ve seen them already and I know ahead of time that they’re just boring.
Dolores Claiborne (1995, screenplay by Tony Gilroy—The Devil’s Advocate, and Armageddon–directed by Taylor Hackford—The Devil’s Advocate, and Ray) is one of the latter. And it’s no fault of the filmmakers. I actually think Gilroy and Hackford, along with Kathy Bates as the title character, does a pretty good job with what they had to work with. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays her daughter Selena, but more on her later.
My problem with this movie is just what they had to work with.
King’s novel tells the story of 50-something Dolores Claiborne who is accused one day of murdering her boss, the woman she has lived with and cared for the last several years, Vera Donovan. Vera was a mean old bitch (“Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto,” says Vera) and Dolores had every reason in the world to kill her. But she didn’t. Or did she? Hackford keeps these details quiet until much later in the movie, so for the bulk of the run time, the audience just doesn’t know Dolores’s guilt or innocence.
What we do know, though, is that the little island community where Dolores lives, off the coast of Maine, considers her guilty, her daughter Selena (whom she hasn’t seen in over a decade) can barely walk for the size of that chip on her shoulder, a lifetime of running away from her mother after the possibly-accidental death of Selena’s father Joe, and Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer) is bound and determined to convict Dolores of murder. This time.
See, years ago, when Selena was in her early teens, Joe came up missing and Detective Mackey was positive Dolores had killed the man. Only she was never convicted. Well, if he couldn’t get her on that murder, Mackey thinks, he’s damn well going to get her on this one. Whether she did it or not.
And the problem here is, Selena is so angry at her mother, she can’t presume the woman’s innocence and is only trying to help her stay out of prison out of some old sense of familial obligation. But as far as Selena’s concerned through most of this movie, it’s very possible Dolores did kill Vera Donovan.
I won’t spoil any of the plot details further than that just in case you find yourself with 131 minutes to kill and absolutely NOTHING else to do. But holy crap this movie is dull.
I think it’s a combination of I had already read the novel when it came out, plus the plot to this movie is a very simple one and once you’ve experienced it the first time, it just doesn’t have a lot of replay-ability. It only contains one or two “surprises” and once those are spent, what you’re left with is Kathy Bates under the blue-filtered light of a false movie set winter sky.
But dammit if Bates doesn’t kill it here anyway. I mean she really committed to the role and dug in deep to excavate every last bit of detail and meaning out of this character. Plummer tries to give his best in retaliation against her, but even as good as he is, the character of Mackey is far from being quite as fleshed out and impactful. Mackey’s career records are 86 cases, 85 convictions. Only one suspect in his history got away from him, and he’s determined she’s not getting away with it a second time.
Then there’s Jennifer Jason Leigh. I’ve loved her since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Who didn’t? And all of her biggest roles have had that certain something about them that she was able to play with. But here … I don’t know. I can’t tell if Leigh is playing Selena with this huge chip on her shoulder because that’s how she’s choosing to play it, or if Leigh herself is carrying around that chip for some reason. I mean, when you look at some of her roles, doesn’t she pretty much ALWAYS seem to be bearing a little more weight and frustration than those around her? I know for me, her acting is pretty one-note throughout most of her career. She has a few excellent turns, like Daisy Domergue. But neither Morgan nor Amityville: The Awakening were very memorable, and by 2018’s Annihilation, she was back on track playing her usual character. So, unfortunately, her portrayal of Selena never really sold me. And in a movie this friggin’ long, that features only two main characters, you kinda need them both to shine.
I did appreciate Hackford’s attention to detail, switching back and forth between present day story and flashbacks, and how he differentiated between the two to such a degree he even used different brands of film for each part of the movie. Again, almost everyone involved gave their all and made a really top notch movie.
I just wish the story had been more interesting. And like I said, that goes back to King. Hackford and company filmed about as faithful an adaptation as has ever been made, but the source material just wasn’t that interesting.
King on Film
1976-1992 (Carrie to Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice)
The Dark Half (1993)
The Tommy knockers (1993)
Needful Things (1993)
The Stand (1994)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995)
The Mangler (1995)
C. Dennis Moore is the author of over 60 published short stories and novellas in the speculative fiction genre. Most recent appearances were in the Dark Highlands 2, What Fears Become, Dead Bait 3 and Dark Highways anthologies. His novels are Revelations, and the Angel Hill stories, The Man in the Window, The Third Floor, The Ghosts of Mertland and The Flip. He is writing another Angel Hill novel called Return to Angel Hill with co-author David Bain.