Classic Film Kid: Misery
To get this review done I’m pretending that Kathy Bates will crush my ankles if I don’t write anything but praise of this film. That’s OK – I have nothing but praise to say. Hello guys, it’s the Classic Film Kid here for another movie review. Today it’s for my recent classic film viewing (at least when writing this part of the review) and that is 1990’s Misery, based on the thriller novel by Stephen King and directed by Rob Reiner, who also directed one of the very first films I reviewed on here, Stand By Me.
It tells the story of romance writer Paul Sheldon who’s most well-known work is the Misery series of novels, and as he completes the new novel in which Misery is killed off, he becomes involved in a snowstorm while driving and is rescued by Annie Wilkes, a nurse who just so happens to be his “number 1, biggest fan”. She is infatuated with him – until she reads his new manuscript and realises that Misery Chastain dies at the end. That’s when things go slightly pear-shaped (and I’m saying slightly to cushion the blow you’ll get when watching the movie for the first time).
Now let’s just say this to get started: I loved Misery from its first scene right up to its closing moment. It is a wonderfully exciting and tense thriller where the tension builds and builds as the film progresses through its 105-minute runtime, leading to one of the most riveting finales I’ve seen in a film.
First, I want to talk about James Caan, as yes, Kathy Bates is absolutely fantastic and she totally deserved the Oscar (which interestingly makes this film the only film based on a King novel to win an Academy Award), but sometimes his performance seems to get overlooked here, and it shouldn’t do, because he is on equal pegging with Bates as far as I’m concerned. For the vast majority of this film, he is a disabled, helpless captive, forced to do Annie’s bidding when she’s around and painfully scrambling around the house for anything that might assist his escape when she is not. Yet James Caan takes this relatively restricted role and displays so much emotion: desperation, hope, pain (in a particularly memorable scene), fear, and almost comedic confusion at Annie’s infatuation over him. She even has her own Paul Sheldon shrine, for heaven’s sake, and his reaction to these moments, as well as her getting wound up over tiny little things is amazing.
Now let’s talk about the character of Annie Wilkes, played by Kathy Bates. This should be fun. Annie is a character of many emotions: pure joy and happiness, solemn emotion, angry and furious to the point of being homicidal. Kathy Bates excels at every one of these: she is sometimes so sweet as the adoring fangirl that it’s hard not to feel sorry for her, and then the moments when she flips out at Paul are even more terrifying than some monster horror movies I’ve seen. For example, we get a scene where she excitedly tells Paul that she’s near the end of his new Misery manuscript. The next scene, it’s night, Paul is trying to get to sleep and we hear the door open. The next shot, Annie is standing there, almost looking at the camera, and fury is glinting in her eyes. She is absolutely distraught that her favourite character has been killed. Paul calmly tries to reason with her, but she’s having none of it and she completely loses the plot, right in front of him.
Bates isn’t staring into the camera, but it’s so close and focusing on her eyes that you can’t help getting the feeling that she’s screaming at you. It’s genius filmmaking and an absolutely stunning performance from Bates. She’s jumping around the room and throwing things at Paul, and all he can do is watch. It’s utterly terrifying. There are other times where she’s quite calm and restrained, casually forcing Paul to write out a new Misery novel, where she is resurrected (she even makes jokes about him naming the gravedigger after her), and in these scenes, she is so in control of the situation. She notices that Paul has been out of his room because her ceramic penguin always faces due south, and to prevent him getting out again (in a famous scene), smashes his ankles with a sledgehammer. That’s how far she’ll go to keep him there.
The subplot of the Sheriff and the police trying to find Paul is also quite engaging and fun in its own right and allows for some great contrasting between the two environments: the open world where the police are investigating and the claustrophobic prison of Annie’s house. The Sheriff is a highly likeable side character, and his determination to find Paul culminates in a sequence of him investigating Annie’s house and discovering Paul in the basement. Too bad Annie kills him literally seconds after. And after this comes one of the most intense and terrifying climaxes you will ever see in a movie. People say they bite their nails during tense scenes: you won’t have fingernails left by the time this is over. Despite the tense nature of the scene, you can’t help but cheer as Paul sets fire to the new Misery manuscript and throws a typewriter at Kathy Bates’s head, but then the struggle that follows is just one punch to the gut after another. Even when you think it’s all over and Annie’s dead, one minute later she’s back on him for one final chance to kill him.
I do have just a couple of minor nitpicks with this film though, and one of them would be that the first few scenes of getting to know both Paul and Annie feel just that little bit slow and meandering. It just kind of seems as if nothing really much of relevance is happening, and it’s only when the ‘You murdered my Misery!’ scene comes along that things really kick off. Again, it’s not a massive problem, and I understand that you need to establish characters and set up the tension, but I feel there was just a little too much of that.
On the whole, I absolutely loved Misery. From the fantastic and creative direction by Rob Reiner, performances by actors at the top of their game, and a gripping tension throughout, it has something for everyone if you’re a fan of thrillers and movies in general. I thoroughly enjoyed Misery and it deserves a very strong 9 out of 10.
That’s all for today. I have some great reviews coming very soon, including for Psycho, Vertigo and an overview on the recent Doctor Who Series 11, but till then, thanks for reading. This is the Classic Film Kid, signing off!