‘Dolores Claiborne’ – A Stephen King Horror Tale of the Real-Life Kind

Dolores Claiborne” is, on the surface, not your typical Stephen King novel, and this is important to note before you begin watching this particular adaptation of his work. This cinematic treatment reunites him with the great Kathy Bates who won an Oscar for playing Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” but she’s not playing a deranged psycho this time around. Also, while much of King’s writings deal with terrifying supernatural powers and unspeakable terrors, the horror generated here comes from real life horrors no one should ever have to endure. In some ways, this makes it one of his more terrifying tales because it deals with the kind of horrible crimes we hope and pray never to experience first-hand. Having said this, it is clear how many of us can never be so lucky as to avoid the worst traumas humanity has to offer.

Bates plays the title character who, as “Dolores Claiborne” opens, is believed to have killed her rich employer Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). This crime immediately reminds the town of Little Tall Island in Maine when Dolores’ husband, Joe (David Strathairn), died twenty years ago under mysterious circumstances, and the general consensus was that Dolores killed him. Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), who had pursued the case against her back then is determined to put her behind bars this time and for good. Into this mix comes Dolores’ daughter, Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a big-time reporter who arrives to defend her mother despite the two of them having been estranged for over a decade.

The novel “Dolores Claiborne” was essentially one long monologue as the story was written entirely from the title character’s point of view. This makes the work director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy have done here all the more impressive. They have taken Dolores’ unsettling story and have stretched it out into a character driven motion picture filled with various characters who have been fleshed out in unforgettably compelling ways. None of these characters, even that drunken lout of a husband and father, are one-dimensional or throwaway caricatures. Each one is complex, and they take unexpected directions which might seem jarring at first, but eventually make sense in the large scheme of things.

The plot shifts back and forth in time as we flashback to when Dolores lived with her drunk and abusive husband and of the vicious abuse she took from him in his endlessly drunken state. Director of photography Gabriel Beristain shoots this hideous past with such vivid colors to where he gives the scenes an innocent look which is soon contrasted with horrible violence. It almost acts as a façade for how the past was seen as if it were some sort of Norman Rockwell painting, the kind made to cover up the severe family dysfunction many would like to pretend does not exist.

For the record, King said he wrote the character of Dolores Claiborne with Kathy Bates in mind, and it is very hard to think of another actress who could have inhabited this role. Stripped of any false glamour, Bates takes her character from being a victim to one who understandably takes matters into her own hands. Her acting here is flawless and compelling, and we root for her even though her actions have devastating moral implications.

When you look at her overall body of work, this movie almost seems like a walk in the park for Leigh. She has gone to great physical and emotional lengths to portray a character throughout her long career, but here it looks like she is taking it easy. However, her character of Selena is no less challenging to portray than the others listed on her vast resume. Selena is not easily likable, but she has to be empathetic because the viewer slowly starts to see how her innocence was irrevocably and unforgivably destroyed. Leigh matches Bates’ performance scene for scene by showing how much Selena wants to forget the past, but she comes to see how her most repressed memories cannot stay below the surface forever.

Special attention also needs to be paid to Ellen Muth who portrays Selena as a little girl. This is not the kind of role parents want their children to portray to as it deals with abuse and molestation among other things, but Muth proves to be utterly convincing in making the young Selena deeply distraught and confused by actions no child should ever have to be put through.

There’s also a bevy of excellent performances from the rest of the cast as well. Christopher Plummer, who is never bad in anything, is memorable as the relentless Detective John Mackey. This could have been a throwaway role, but Plummer makes Mackey a complex character to where you question whether his determination is based more on personal revenge than justice. Judy Parfitt is unbearably domineering as Dolores’ wealthy employer, Vera Donovan, and their relationship runs much deeper than we see at first glance. And David Strathairn manages to flesh out his despicable character of Joe St. George to where he’s just slightly more than your average mean drunk.

Most of King’s novels deal with the horror of supernatural elements or ghosts and demons which haunt our nightmares. But “Dolores Claiborne,” much like “Stand by Me,” deals with the horrors of real life which we are never quick to confront unless we are put in a position where the awful truth can no longer be ignored. Perhaps the unsettling nature of this particular work by King is what kept many from checking out this motion picture when it arrived in movie theatres back in 1995, but those of us who were willing to dive into the dark side of things like myself did not deny ourselves a journey to the horrors this film has to offer. But now, 25 years later, this film fits in perfectly with a time which includes the Time’s Up movement as we are forced to realize we have thoughtlessly ignored the worst abuses made against other human beings for far too long. As a result, this particular King cinematic adaption plays even better than it did back when it was released.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘mother!’ Provides Audiences with a Vicious Roller Coaster Ride into Madness

mother! movie poster

After watching Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, a special behind the scenes featurette was shown where the filmmaker explained how he wanted to make a movie which would generate different reactions from its audience to where various interpretations could be formed over what they witnessed. Aronofsky has succeeded in doing exactly that as “mother!” does not have him spelling anything out for anyone, perhaps not even for the cast either. Maybe he does have an explanation for all the craziness which ensues in this, one of the freakiest psychological thrillers in some time, but he’s not about to let on what it is, and I am perfectly fine with that as to explain anything about the plot would dilute its power instantly.

The experience of seeing “mother!” was a lot like watching Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” as both movies feature a married couple who are nameless and staying in a secluded country home in the woods. Like “Antichrist,” “mother!” has polarized critics and audiences as many are desperate to discover what its director was attempting to accomplish here. The best advice I can give you is to approach Aronofsky’s film by leaving any and expectations you have for it at the door. It has been advertised as an homage to “Rosemary’s Baby,” but the only thing it has in common with Polanski’s classic is it’s also not a movie for new or expectant parents.

We meet Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) on a beautiful and sunny morning as she wakes up in the home she shares with Him (Javier Bardem), a well-regarded poet who is currently suffering from a frustrating bout of writer’s block. The two of them lead a peaceful existence in a home which has been lovingly restored after suffering much damage, but this existence is soon interrupted by an unexpected visitor (played by Ed Harris), an orthopedic surgeon who Him welcomes into their home even though Mother is perturbed that he would welcome a complete stranger in ever so easily.

Things become even more complicated when the unexpected visitor’s wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) comes by and becomes infatuated with knowing more about Mother and why she and her husband have no children of their own. Granted, this makes Lawrence’s character’s name of Mother hypocritical as she is not a mother at the movie’s start, but many surprises are in store for the characters and the audience as “mother!” takes a number of twists and turns you cannot see coming.

Revealing more about what happens would be detrimental as “mother!” is best viewed with little knowledge about it. Indeed, promoting this movie must have been a nightmare for Paramount Pictures as you can only say so much about it before you spoil everything. Then again, can you spoil this movie for others? Aronofsky has made something here which cannot be easily explained, but while this will baffle and infuriate many who sit through, it should enthrall those who are in the mood for something cinematically adventurous and a movie which forces you to think about what you just saw.

What I can tell you is things reach a frenzied fever pitch as “mother!” barrels towards a climax which comes close to equaling the frenzy of Ellen Burstyn being terrorized by her refrigerator in “Requiem for a Dream.” Aronofsky has said he applied “dream-logic” to “mother!,” and it certainly helps to know this going in as events keeping going by at a rapid pace to where you can’t help but feel like you are in a nightmare or a dream you are desperate to control, but can’t. It’s like being a car when the brakes have failed you, and the emergency brake ultimately doesn’t work either. You just keep getting thrust into a hellish realm as Lawrence and Bardem become trapped in their once peaceful home as the woods it is located in offers no escape. In fact, it all reminded me of what Charlotte Gainsbourg said in “Antichrist” at one point, “Nature is Satan’s church.” Well, Satan looks to be having even more fun here.

There are said to be a lot of biblical allegories to be discovered here, but the only one I could see was the reference to Cain and Abel as two brothers fight one another bitterly over an inheritance which benefits one more than the other. I am already very eager to see “mother!” as seeing it once is not enough to uncover all which Aronofsky wants us to discover. Now that I have experience this motion picture on an emotionally visceral level, I want to experience in a different way even though Aronofsky has warned us not to analyze “mother!” too deeply.

Jennifer Lawrence remains as luminous an actress as ever, and she looks to be put through the emotional wringer here as her character descends into a realm of inescapable madness. It turns out she even got so into character on set to where she was constantly hyperventilating and even cracked a rib, so there’s no doubt about dedication to playing a role. At this point, I am convinced Lawrence can play any role given to her, and she has this ageless quality to her appearance which matches her up perfectly with actors who are several years older.

Lawrence also shares a number of almost gleefully unsettling scenes opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, an actress we don’t see near enough of these days. As these two circle each other like cats ready to hiss at one another while guarding their precious territory, we are reminded of how brilliant Pfeiffer can be when given material which piques her interest.

As for Javier Bardem and Ed Harris, these are two actors you can never ever go wrong with, and they infuse “mother!” with a passion for acting they have never lost sight of since the start of their careers. Bardem, in particular, gives his character a loving presence as well as an ominous one. The latter is especially the case in a scene where he stares down Lawrence, and it’s a stare which lasts for what feels like an eternity and brings back memories of his Oscar-winning role as Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” I kept waiting for him to explode as Bardem sits like a wild animal waiting to strike, and I was desperate for Lawrence not to let her guard down while in front of him.

Aronofsky continues to employ many of his regular colleagues to great effect like cinematographer Matthew Libatique, but what’s surprising is this movie’s lack of a music score. Instead of employing his longtime composer Clint Mansell, Aronofsky instead hired Johann Johannsson to come up with ominous musical themes. However, upon viewing an edit of “mother!,” they both agreed this movie didn’t need a score. It says a lot about “mother!” that it needs no music score to aid in the movie’s mission to generate almost unbearable tension. Few other filmmakers could get away with such a feat, but the intense sound design which, when viewed in the right theater, surrounds you to where you feel every bit as trapped as Lawrence is. As her predicament becomes more and more of a sonic assault, we feel her character’s agitation all too much.

In retrospect, I was tickled to death at the reactions the audience I saw “mother!” had. Several people laughed either out of derision or just plain nervousness as things went from a state of peacefulness to complete Armageddon, and others complained how this scene or another contained the only elements which made the least amount of sense to them. As I walked out of the theater, others said they couldn’t understand why people were laughing at certain moments. Many of my movie friends have said this movie is likely to end up on the lists of both the best and the worst films of 2017, and I couldn’t agree more. You will either love this motion picture, or you will hate it with a passion.

As for myself, I loved the visceral roller coaster ride “mother!” took me on. I never caught myself laughing much at what went on as I was completely gripped in Aronofsky’s vise as he continued to tighten the grip he had on me, and I was thrilled at the levels of “Requiem for a Dream” intensity he was able to generate with this one. Many will say he is simply out to torture his audience, but why can’t we have a torturous cinematic experience every once in a while, or at least one which is torturous in a good way? I show no hesitation in calling “mother!” one of the best movies I have seen so far in 2017 as it provided me with something incredibly unique in a time where the cinematic landscape is overfilled with superheroes.

Yes, the market research firm CinemaScore has given “mother!” an average grade of an F, a rare grade for movie to get from them. Then again, Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris,” William Friedkin’s “Bug” and Richard Kelly’s “The Box” also received the same grade, and those movies are much better than their reputations suggest. And keep in mind, this is the same firm which gave an A+ to Dinesh D’Souza’s infinitely patriotic but poorly made, not to mention boring, documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” so there’s no accounting for taste.

Seriously, I haven’t had this much fun taking in an audience’s reaction to a motion picture since “The Human Centipede 2.” Of course, “mother!” is much, much better than that one. When the exclamation mark appears a couple of seconds after the title does and then sticks around once the title disappears, you should know you are in for something completely different.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘It Comes at Night’ is Not Your Average Psychological Horror Movie

It Comes at Night movie poster

It Comes at Night” cannot and should not be mistaken for your average psychological horror movie. Whereas the average genre film aims to delineate who the good guys and the bad guys are, no such distinction is made here as writer and director Trey Edward Shults has rendered the characters to be all too human. We understand their wants, needs and motivations very well, and this makes the movie even more unsettling than it already is.

We are introduced to Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as they lay Sarah’s father, Bud (David Pendleton), to rest in a most uncomfortable way. We soon learn the family has secluded themselves in their country home as some highly contagious disease has since laid waste to the world. Along with their dog, Stanley, the family keeps themselves out of danger by staying locked up at night when the danger which threatens humanity is at its most powerful point.

But their bubble is suddenly threatened when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home, believing it to be unoccupied and in desperate need of supplies for himself and his family. After tying Will to a tree overnight to confirm he is not infected by the disease, Paul decides he is worth helping and succeeds in bringing Will’s wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), to safety to where they are all leaving under the same roof. But even as they come to settle down comfortably with one another, the inevitable conflicts arise which will force them into a game of survival no one can back away from peacefully.

Shults made an unforgettable directorial debut with “Krisha” which was one of my favorite movies of 2016. While “Krisha” was an emotionally pulverizing motion picture, “It Comes at Night” is one which mercilessly plays with your head as it taps into your fears of the things you can’t see or understand. Paul, Sarah and Travis rarely stray far from their country home as just about everything outside of seems all too threatening to confront. Whether or not you think Shults gives the “it” of the movie’s title a clear definition, it won’t matter. The it could be anything. It could be a supernatural force, an incurable disease, or perhaps it is the realization of the violent deeds we are capable of committing when pushed to our breaking point.

“In order to appease the gods, the Druid priests held fire rituals. Prisoners of war, criminals, the insane, animals… were… burned alive in baskets. By observing the way they died, the Druids believed they could see omens of the future. Two thousand years later, we’ve come no further. Samhain isn’t evil spirits. It isn’t goblins, ghosts or witches. It’s the unconscious mind. We’re all afraid of the dark inside ourselves.”

                                                                                                                           -Donald Pleasance

                                                                                                                            “Halloween II

I put the above quote from “Halloween II” up above because those words were playing in my head while watching “It Comes at Night.” Looking at these characters, you can tell they were once decent people who wanted nothing more than to raise their families and live in peace, but the state of the world has forced them to defend what is theirs in a way they never thought they would resort to. This is especially the case with Paul who has long since become handy with a shotgun and disposing of corpses. But Edgerton, who is excellent as Paul, eventually shows the character at his most vulnerable state as he comes to see not just the person he has become, but the person he always was.

Shults shows the fears of all these characters reaching their peak at nighttime when fear and paranoia combine to create a more hostile environment than the one outside their front door. Speaking of the front door, it is painted a dark red as horror movies always feature a red door or two, and Paul makes it clear to everyone how the door must always stay locked at night, always. As Roger Corman once said, one of the scariest images in any movie is the closed door. So, when the door moves suddenly is ajar, Shults has us right in his grasp to where we are sitting straight up in our chairs.

In addition to Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr. provide strong support as Paul’s wife, Sarah, and their son Travis. Together, they portray a family much like any other, struggling to survive in an increasingly insane world. Christopher Abbott, so good in “James White,” inhabits the character of Will with both a tense desperation and an easy-going attitude as he settles in with Paul and his family. This is an actor incapable of faking an emotion, and his performance in “It Comes at Night” is the latest example. Riley Keough is also excellent as Will’s wife, Kim, as she makes her an enigmatic presence to where you don’t know whether to hug her or keep your distance from her.

In making everything seem so down to earth, “It Comes at Night” does suffer as things become more underplayed than they should have been. There were times where I wished Shults had injected more energy into the story as things begin to feel way too subtle. Still, when the movie works, it really works as the tension builds to a fierce climax where I could not find myself rooting for one person over the other. Shults is also assisted by his “Krisha” collaborators Drew Daniels whose cinematography makes the darkness these characters live in all the more threatening and claustrophobic, and by composer Brian McOmber who provides another unsettling score which builds up an already intense motion picture into something feverishly intense.

The ending of “It Comes at Night” proves to be both infuriating and utterly haunting as we are left to wonder what will become of whoever is left. It feels like the movie ended sooner than it should have, but perhaps it would have been unfair to ask Shults to give us something more definitive. Still, it’s nice to see something like this occupying the local movie houses alongside the summer blockbusters as it gives us a lot to ponder once the lights come up.

As for myself, the post-apocalyptic setting of this movie is almost secondary to the one thing which should matter the most to these characters – trust. Whether we are living in the best of times or the worst of times, trust is the one thing we need more than anything else to survive one hard working day after another. Without trust, how can we survive in a crazy world? “It Comes at Night” confronts the issue of trust head-on, and it is devastating to see it break down amongst characters who might otherwise have no problem living under the same roof.

* * * ½ out of * * * *