Written by: Stephen King (novel), William Goldman (screenplay)
Directed by: Rob Reiner
Starring: James Caan, Kathy Bates, and Richard Farnsworth
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"I'm your number one fan. There's nothing to worry about. You're going to be just fine. I will take good care of you. I'm your number one fan."
Writing can be hell, even for someone as prolific and Stephen King. Throughout the course of his storied career, the author has returned to the trials and tribulations of the creative process, from the anxieties of writer’s block to the fear of being confined to certain expectations. He particularly literalized the latter in Misery, the 1987 novel penned after King’s attempt to break out of the horror mold with the poorly-received Eyes of the Dragon a few years earlier. When combined with King’s growing drug addiction, this slight inspired a positively deranged—if not completely transparent—tale of an author paralyzed both figuratively and literally. Essentially an increasingly horrific chamber play, it’s no wonder Misery eventually attracted attention from Hollywood suitors eager to jump on the still-lucrative King bandwagon.
Appropriately enough, the story eventually found unlikely matches in much of its cast and crew: though no stranger to King fare following Stand By Me, the long-time comedy director was seeking to move outside his comfort zone. Likewise, James Caan found himself attracted to the role of novelist Paul Sheldon because it was unlike his other roles, while Kathy Bates had spent much of her career on stage and the small screen before her breakout role here as Annie Wilkes. Together, these collaborators hatched one of the most enduring King adaptations, if only for the ankle-shattering scene that made it so infamous—not that this is all Misery has to offer, of course. Cringe-worthy gore scenes are a dime-a-dozen in this genre, but this one is so impactful because it’s underpinned by incredibly intense, intriguing pulp filmmaking that captures the page-turning sensation of King’s novel.
After experiencing years of success penning Misery, a series Regency grocery store romance novels, Paul Sheldon is looking to break loose. Having killed off title character in the newly-released series conclusion, he’s spent months holed up in his Colorado retreat, where he’s hammered out an entirely new novel that’s free of “the Misery business.” Having completed it, all he needs to do is deliver the manuscript to his agent (Lauren Bacall), which will entail pushing through a blizzard on his way out of Colorado. It proves to be impossible, as his car skids off the road, leaving him trapped in the upturned vehicle. If not for the intervention of Annie Wilkes, the author would have certainly frozen to death, his body undiscovered until the thaw of spring. Authorities assume this is what happened to him: following his disappearance and finding no leads, they assume he’ll turn up months later. The truth is more disturbing: it turns out that Wilkes—Sheldon’s self-proclaimed number one fan—has the author confined in her home under the pretense of helping him to recover from his horrific injuries. In reality, though, she’s still reeling at the death of her favorite character, Misery, and is forcing Paul to write a new entry resurrecting the character.
For a brief moment, you can almost believe Annie when she claims to have Paul’s best interests at heart. It’s a subtle but crucial decision, one that begins to peel away at the layers of this strange, slippery character, who may actually be a well-meaning but disturbed obsessive. Bates plays her as outgoing and sympathetic, completely and utterly convinced that she’s doing the right thing for Paul, so much so that the first half of Misery plays out as a quasi-tragic story of a broken woman (who claims she lost her husband) going to great, deranged lengths to help her favorite author. Obviously, she’s disturbed, but she doesn’t seem to be aware of it, an approach that’s arguably more unsettling than a knowing psychopath: there’s something slightly awkward about Annie’s behavior, to the point where you almost feel embarrassed and sorry for her, even during her unhinged outbursts. Both the script and Bates’s performance lead you right up the edge of sympathizing with Annie as much as much as you do with Paul, and perhaps even offers a slimmer of hope that her captive might be able to reason with her.
In reality, it’s a terrific front in the service of King’s increasingly lurid tale, adapted here into one of the most frustrating movies of all-time—and I mean that in the best way possible. As the title suggests, this is a rightfully miserable experience watching Paul struggle to free himself from Annie’s grasp. Much of the intrigue rests in the screenplay, a razor sharp adaptation of King’s novel that primarily focuses on Paul’s desperate—but entirely feasible—means of escaping. An elaborate game of cat-and-mouse unfolds, largely without Annie’s knowledge: whenever a small window of opportunity opens, Paul takes time to scout the house or stash away painkillers, concocting a scheme over the course of several weeks, waiting for the right moment to enact it.
Reiner captures it all in painstaking detail, the claustrophobic settings providing an obvious (but exacting) match for the director’s reliance on close-ups. The simple act of prying open a locked door becomes an ordeal unto itself, not to mention Paul’s venture out into the other areas of the house. During his first attempt, Reiner often pushes in close on Caan’s face, capturing the sweaty, bug-eyed desperation of a man driven only by the impulse to get out—even if he doesn’t know exactly where he’s going to go or how he’s going to get there. However, in a cruel turn of events, he realizes with exhausted horror that Annie has returned from the store, forcing him to quickly retrace all of those steps, effectively putting him back at square one. A terrifically suspenseful little overture, this sequence sets the pace for Misery, a film that repeatedly inches audiences to the edge of their seat each time Paul seems to be on the verge of escape, only to quickly jerk them back into a helpless position when he’s foiled by bad luck or Annie’s own cunning.
Misery has seemingly been crafted to heighten this back-and-forth frustration at every turn. At one point, that small stash of pills becomes a lifeboat for both Paul and the audience, who spend a long stretch of the film utterly convinced they’ll be his salvation. An entire exchange is dedicated to Paul manipulating Annie into having a dinner with him, all so he can mix the stash into her drink, rendering her unconscious long enough for him to figure something out. Reiner coyly leads the audience along, building to the triumphant moment before quickly undercutting it when Annie knocks her glass over: I have to imagine Paul’s resigned, panic-stricken face was accompanied by exasperated gasps from theater-goers everywhere.
And so it goes for the rest of the film, which grows more disturbing as Paul must hatch new schemes, tip-toeing around Annie’s increasingly erratic behavior. Reiner’s initially restrained horror sensibilities grow more pronounced throughout, allowing him to lean into composer Marc Shaiman’s score, creating a slasher movie ambiance as Barry Sonnenfeld’s camera prowls throughout this bleak house of horrors nestled in the foreboding, icy desolation of rural Colorado. Escape becomes both more impossible and more vital once Paul discovers the awful truth about Annie Wilkes. In addition to being an unhinged stalker, she has a sordid backstory involving a decades-long homicidal streak: it turns out that her obsessive behavior with Paul’s work isn’t a bug but rather a feature of an already broken brain that will stop at nothing to keep this author from leaving her.
This is why the infamous, defining moment of Misery lands so forcibly: obviously, the bone-crunching implications are cringe-worthy, but there’s something even more existentially dreadful about the exchange. It comes just as Annie has thwarted yet another of Paul’s schemes involving a butcher knife that he’s stashed away beneath his mattress—or at least he thinks he has, as he finds himself blindly fumbling for it, only to be deflated when Annie produces the knife herself. Soon enough, she’s replaced it with the sledgehammer that will pummel Paul’s ankles into oblivion. Pointedly, Reiner only captures one bash, providing audiences a split-second shot of Paul’s ankle twisting in a direction no man’s ankle should twist. The other blow is perhaps mercifully left to the imagination as Paul howls in agony, allowing the audience to soak in the utter hopelessness and despair of the situation.
It might qualify as the lone act of mercy in Misery, a film otherwise designed to fuck you up at every turn. At a certain point, you almost gather the sense that everyone involved is as maniacal as Annie Wilkes, delighting in torturing a captive audience with multiple glimmers of hope that are snuffed out. One such glimmer is a long con that’s setup for the duration of the movie, during those rare moments Reiner strays from the Wilkes abode to capture a local sheriff’s (Richard Farnsworth) dogged investigation of Paul’s disappearance. Unconvinced that no foul play is involved, he trawls through Paul’s novels in search of possible clues, slowly putting the pieces together, leading the audience to that big, triumphant moment where he’ll arrive at Annie’s house a conquering hero.
Only it doesn’t play out like that, of course: as soon as Annie notices the sheriff’s approach, she stuffs Paul away in the cellar before eagerly showing the house off to this persistent old man, whose perfect dignity makes him a gentle foil to this mad woman’s lunacy. It also makes it all the more fucked up when he winds up on the business end of a shotgun blast—just as he’s discovered Paul down in the cellar, naturally. At this point, it’s even more obvious that Reiner envisions Misery as a means of fucking with the audience, perhaps revealing that he didn’t abandon his comedy sensibilities but rather channeled them into finding the subtle, dark humor in King’s tale. The climax here is a riotous, knock-down, drag-out fight featuring various household objects, with the killing blow being ironically struck by the typewriter Annie has practically chained Paul to in an effort to provide her obsession with a new lease on life. Up until the film’s final shot—which finds Paul unable to shake his ordeal 18 months later—Reiner guides Misery with a sort of demented playfulness uncharacteristic of most King adaptations, while Bates’s fully unhinged performance accentuates the proceedings with a manic, trash-movie edginess.
But make no mistake: beneath that veneer of playfulness, this is very much a horror story preying on fears of confinement, a universal paranoia here distilled into King’s anxieties about writing. Obviously, Paul’s imprisonment is a reflection of his own frustrations with his career, and his—and I suppose any author’s—worst nightmare is realized when Wilkes discovers his new manuscript and forces him to burn it because it doesn’t meet her expectations. As someone who has written many, many words for this website, I would probably prefer it if someone shattered my ankles instead. As Annie and Paul’s “relationship” develops, it’s a clear mirror for how artists interact with fans who feel entitled to their work, an insight that’s only grown to seem more horrifically prescient in an age where fanbases have bigger, louder platforms than ever to broadcast their disappointment (sometimes directly at creators, even).
You can’t watch Misery these days without thinking about this dark underbelly of fandom, which drives rotten fanboys to rebel any time they don’t get their way. Annie Wilkes might as well be a litmus test for geek culture, one that should give us pause whenever we realize just how closely we identify with her. One mid-movie rant is especially pointed: unsatisfied with the means by which Paul has impossibly resurrected Misery, Annie thinks back to how the old matinee serials used to cheat audiences by resolving cliffhangers with newly introduced information during the next installment. I can’t help but wonder what Annie would think about the state of many movie franchises today, which now endure via sequels that are content to ignore what came before. Just a decade ago, I imagine I would have reacted similarly (if not nearly as psychotically, mind you) because I was the sort of guy who would post long-winded message board rants about the continuity issues in Halloween. All these years later, I can say without hesitation that I am definitely over it—and all the better for it (case in point: the recently-released reboot has once again ignored the sequels, and it's probably my favorite movie of the year so far).
Indeed, watching Misery in my 30s is now a sobering reminder of how rabid I once was, giving it yet another layer of intrigue. Not only is Annie Wilkes among the most iconic King characters ever committed to screen, but she’s also a relic of my own relationship with my obsessions. What may have been intended by King to be a horror story for creators has unwittingly become a cautionary tale for fans: never go Full Annie Wilkes, lest you allow your obsessions to control your life to an unhealthy degree. The mark of a truly indelible film, Misery has only grown to be more relevant nearly 30 years later—all without losing its capacity to horrify and thrill its audience.
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