I’m Not Your Number One Fan: A Small Cinematic Grievance with MISERY
16 September 2012
Because misery loves company, this Sunday Reel Club offers companionship to Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990). Adapted from Stephen King’s novel, of the same title, Misery captures several weeks during which time a severely disturbed woman, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), imprisons renowned writer, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), in her isolated Colorado home. The film begins with Paul emerging from a quiet Colorado lodge, a retreat where he always secludes himself to write. Unbeknownst to Paul, a massive blizzard sweeps over Colorado and Paul crashes his car in the whiteout. As luck would have it, Annie, a former nurse, and Paul’s self-proclaimed “number one fan,” rescues the badly injured author from the wrecked vehicle and takes him back to her home. Once there Paul regains consciousness and begins to realize Annie is far from the Florence Nightingale type. While healing, Paul’s latest Misery book, the last in a wildly popular series following protagonist Misery Chastain, is released and Annie purchases a copy in town. Annie becomes overcome with rage when she discovers Paul kills Misery in the end of the novel. Refusing to let the badly injured Paul call his friends and family or leave, Annie forces Paul write yet another Misery novel, one in which Misery comes back from the dead. Paul agrees to pacify Annie’s violent temper. In the weeks he spends trapped in his wheelchair writing, Paul devises plans to escape. While many of his plans fizzle out, his final, impromptu attempt ends up being a fight to the death between Paul and Annie.
In all, Misery is simply a cinematic home run. First, deriving from King’s novel, the film’s narrative concentrates on Annie’s complicated yet captivating decent into madness, and, of course, how Annie’s madness wrecks havoc on unsuspecting, handicapped Paul Sheldon. Content wise, the film is fascinating. Second, experienced screenplay writer William Goldman adapted this piece from King’s novel. Translating King’s literary pace and exploration into the human psyche into a visual spectacle is not easy, evident by the numerous King adaptations that failed to satisfy cinematic audiences. Nevertheless, Goldman’s familiarity with screen language proves fluent in Misery. Lastly, Rob Reiner cleverly approached Misery with “less is more” direction. That is—and this is not intended to berate or insult Reiner—the cinematics in Misery are rather formulaic. Falling into the psychological thriller/horror genre, Reiner communicates the film with a few standard Dutch angles and relies heavily upon high and low angled shots. For example, the high angles almost always look down upon the broken and beaten Paul, who rests helplessly in bed, while the low angles most frequently look up at robust Annie who towers menacingly over Paul. Moreover, the film employs frequent close-ups, most notably on Bates’ face. With a close up shot Reiner can fill the screen with Annie, super-sizing her presence, allowing the audience to feel what Paul feels, that her torture is inescapable. Nothing about these angles or shots is original or revolutionary, but Reiner knew he did not need to reinvent the wheel to make Misery a success. Simply following the cinematic formula for a film of this genre would be more than enough to communicate this mind-bending narrative. Reiner did just that and the film was a hit, and is still considered and achievement.
Yet, even a cinematic home run has its imperfections, and in Misery one of the most noticeable imperfections comes directly after the film’s opening sequence. Just after Paul crashes his car in the blizzard, and the film’s title boldly appears in a blood-red color across the screen, the film flashes back to a meeting between Paul and his publisher, Marcia (Lauren Bacall). This meeting occurred in New York a few weeks before Paul’s crash. During the meeting Paul grips tightly his brown leather satchel and tells Marcia of the case’s great sentimental value. He also reveals he is ready to write something new, something not in the Misery series. Marcia tells Paul to be more grateful for all the financial success Misery brought him, but it is clear from Paul’s reaction that his gratitude is minuet compared to his agitation to leave Misery behind. The brief flashback ends and the film resumes in the present with Annie prying Paul out of the crashed car.
Although this flashback in only a minor part of the film, it disorients viewers unnecessarily. To begin, this flashback breaks the film’s linear narrative; no other moment of the film breaks continuity. Why then would the film include a break so early on if this pattern would not be continued? Furthermore, a flashback typically reveals crucial information to the audience. That is, if a film bothers to flashback it is most likely for plot purposes. This is not the case in Misery. Yes, it is interesting to know Paul’s feelings about the Misery series; however, that information comes up time and again throughout the film, particularly in conversations and confrontations with Annie during his capture. Also, the flashback introduces the audience to Marcia, but she reintroduces herself mere minutes afterward, when she calls Buster, the small Colorado town’s sheriff, to report Paul missing. Since the flashback’s content becomes redundant, this sequence has no significance to the film.
Taken another way, there is enough evidence to support this flashback is actually dream, as it begins just after Paul’s car accident and immediately returns to a barely conscious Paul trapped in the car. But, even if it is an unconscious dream (as opposed to a conscious flashback), this sequence still breaks continuity and offers nothing to the plot. Had this been the first in a series of dreams Paul would have throughout the film then the dreams might evolve into collective significance. Too bad that is not the case.
In a film that plays by all the rules, not venturing away from the established cinematic formula, why would Reiner include one empty flashback? The obvious answer is the flashback provides Lauren Bacall more screen time, and that could legitimately be the reason the scene was included. In the opening credits Bacall is attributed with, “and special appearance by Lauren Bacall.” Perhaps her appearance was so special that an entire irrelevant scene was written for the film just to highlight her.
While more Bacall screen time is a welcomed treat for any film, this flashback remains a small blemish on the nearly perfect Misery. Fortunately for Reiner, the flashback occurs before Annie and her decent into madness are even introduced in the film, and therefore before the narrative’s true focus begins.