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Misery (1990, Kathy Bates, James Caan)

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Stephen King’s story is essentially a superb two-hander casting James Caan as a best-selling novelist who crashes his car in the snow in Colorado just after completing the latest book, his first serious novel after a hugely successful series of 19 romantic novels featuring heroine Misery Chastain. Fortunately for Caan, he is rescued from the wreckage of his car by Kathy Bates, a former nurse and his self-styled greatest fan, who expertly sets his broken legs and puts them in splints. Unfortunately, he allows her to read the manuscript of his new book – and Bates, who is far from balanced, has an extreme reaction. She hates the book’s gutter language and ‘realistic’ characters.

And when she gets hold of a copy of Caan’s final Misery novel and discovers he has killed off his heroine by allowing her to die in childbirth, she tips over into dangerous madness. Caan is missing and presumed to be dead, although his agent Lauren Bacall has asked local sheriff Richard Farnsworth to instigate a search for him.

Meanwhile Bates forces Caan to burn the manuscript of his ‘dirty’ new book and to start writing a new novel that will bring her favourite, Misery Chastain, back from the grave. Caan, unable to walk and completely at Bates’ mercy, has no option but to comply with her demands – but he soon comes to realize she is a serial killer and that when he completes his new novel, she will add him to her list of victims unless he is somehow able to fight back…

Reiner skilfully balances the viscerally and emotionally shocking aspects of the story with its more blackly humorous elements, and stages several classic shock sequences with vivid visceral impact, notably the genuinely chilling scene in which Bates ‘hobbles’ Caan by breaking his ankles to prevent further escape attempts. Reiner, then best know for comedy with films like When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride, stated: ‘I’ve never made anyone in an audience scream before, but it’s fun to watch them jump and scream… almost as much fun as making them laugh.’

Caan, making something of a comeback after several less-than-successful films, gave a powerful and affecting performance but the greatest praise, justifiably so, was reserved for Bates, whose mesmerizing portrait of smiling madness and terrifying, unexpected mood swings justifiably won her the Golden Globe Award and the Best Actress Academy Award in her first leading role after years of appearing in bit parts and unnoticed small character roles. To play the part, said Bates, she read various studies of psychopaths and serial killers, determined to ensure that her portrayal, which was cleverly compounded of sharp wit, wrenching realism and extraordinary psychological truth, showed – importantly – the psychopath’s complete lack of remorse or responsibility.

Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN) wrote the script; Richard Farnsworth, as a rural sheriff, and Lauren Bacall, as Caan’s agent, contribute memorable support.

production details
USA | 107 minutes | 1990

Director: Rob Reiner
Writer: William Goldman, from the novel by Stephen King

cast
James Caan as Paul Sheldon
Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes
Richard Farnsworth as Buster
Frances Sternhagen as Virginia
Lauren Bacall as Marcia Sindell
Graham Jarvis as Libby
Rob Reiner as Helicopter Pilot
J.T. Walsh as State Trooper Sherman Douglas
Jerry Potter as Pete
Archie Hahn as Reporter
Thomas Brunelle as Anchorman
June Christopher as Anchorwoman

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