DOLORES CLAIBORNE: Blu-ray (Castlerock, 1995) Warner Archive
Rather unceremoniously referenced as “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte for the age of Oprah”, Taylor Hackford’s Dolores Claiborne (1995) is, in fact, an accomplished psychological thriller with some powerhouse performances. Chief among these is Kathy Bates, acting since 1979 without ever garnering public notoriety until her big screen emergence as Annie Wilkes; the deranged #1 fan of writer, Paul Sheldon (James Caan) in director Rob Reiner’s harrowing adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery (1990). There are six degrees of separation between Annie and Dolores; also, betwixt Misery and this movie – Bates, in the interim, cast as beloved Southern frump, Evelyn Couch in the tear-jerker, Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). We adore Kathy Bates, who can convey so much with seemingly so little effort. I suppose that is why they call it ‘acting’.
Dolores is Bates’ favorite performance. And being in another Stephen King adaptation certainly advanced her career. However, at the time some reviewers unfairly compared her in Misery to this movie, judging the later effort as ‘inferior’. So, permit us to first dispel both this myth and comparison; Bates, having played utterly insane in Misery, and sweetly innocent in Fried Green Tomatoes. Her Dolores is a far more subtly nuanced and varied evaluation than either of these polar opposites, or, in fact, of the victimized female, neither full of saccharine nor one-dimensional and sinister, but careworn, discouraged and utterly humiliated. But wait: our Dolores is about to unleash the kind of reluctant scorn referenced and made uber-legendary in Shakespeare. And Bates is so clever here, gradually building this crescendo of venom on a carefully balanced tightrope of alternatives designed to misdirect, or rather, be interpreted two ways: the audiences’ natural predilection to believe she just might be a cold-blooded murderess.
Director, Hackford has surrounded Bates with some stellar talent, ever so slightly to deflect the impetus of re-branding Dolores Claiborne a one-woman tour de force. Jennifer Jason Leigh struggles to step out of Bates’ shadow as Selena St. George, Dolores’ embittered and estranged daughter. Selena is so crippled by emotional scars from her past, some self-inflicted/others beyond her control (for which she ruthlessly – and misguidedly holds her mother accountable) she has allowed herself to slip into a sort of innate hatred, threatening what little vestige of hope remains for a better life elsewhere. With her penetrating glares, gritted-teeth and fitful bursts of undulated rage, Leigh’s performance is the more ‘showy’ but less effective. It’s still a hell of a good show though, and Leigh ought to have emerged as a bigger star in the 1990’s. Alas, Hollywood remains hellbent on the promotion of ‘lookers’ to real actresses. Leigh’s mousy, slightly angular features, her diminutive Tom-boyish body type instead relegated her to walk-ons; a genuine shame.
Into the mix, we also get Christopher Plummer as doggedly determined, Det. John Mackey. Plummer’s relentless crusader is a wily old dog; very rough around the edges and devious to a fault. Mackey is so utterly convinced of Dolores’ guilt he stops just short of manufacturing proof to build his case around some very circumstantial evidence. Plummer’s accomplished presence is a real boost to the movie; his cache and longevity as a Hollywood ‘outsider’ having lent Mackey a terrific strain of determination. Last, but certainly not least is Judy Parfitt’s blood-curdling cruel socialite, Vera Donovan. Parfitt’s great gift has always been her ability to transfix us with a steely-eyed uncertainty of character. For a long while we are never entirely certain if Vera is good egg or evil incarnate. Like virtually all of the other characterizations featured in the movie, this one is far more nuanced than pronounced.
On the surface, Vera is the proverbial ‘rich bitch’ who delights at humbling young women in her employ she suspects are of interest to her inattentive and philandering husband, Jack (Kelly Burnett). The big reveal comes later: that Vera may or may not have tampered with Jack’s brake line to put an end to his wicked ways. Vera’s pseudo-confession is decidedly, instrumental in getting Dolores to recognize that her husband must also ‘pay’ for his sins against the women in his life. In one of the more startling vignettes, Vera investigates Dolores’ suspicions about her abusive husband, Joe (David Straithairn), who – in flashback – thinks nothing of striking Dolores across the lower back with a block of wood meant for the fire. But has he really graduated from knuckle-dragging bum to child molester, since taken to fondling the couple’s teenage daughter (Ellen Muth, perfectly cast as the impressionable, young Selena)?
As scripted by Tony Gilroy, Dolores Claiborne keeps us guessing. The picture was shot almost entirely in Nova Scotia subbing in for King’s fabled Maine coastline. Gilroy’s approach to King’s novel is methodical and sustained. With Hackford’s assist, he devotes sustained intervals to picking apart the scabs of social angst and regret lingering beneath the surface. The flashbacks that reveal so much about these characters and what actually is taking place in the present are masterfully handled by Hackford with smooth transitions from the gloominess of ‘today’ to yesteryear’s more vibrantly hued, if less than rose-colored snapshots mostly witnessed through the young Selena’s recollections. Typical of a child’s reminiscences, the girl has misperceived practically every gradation in Dolores and Joe’s crumbling marriage; unable to dissect the situation, and quite unwilling to see how her mother’s austerity and rigidness is meant to protect and preserve, rather than hinter her happiness.
After the opening credits, Dolores Claiborne opens in the stately manor of Vera Donovan, situated atop a hillside overlooking the bay and town on Little Tall Island. It’s out of season; cold, dark and grey. We hear voices and see the silhouettes of two women struggling on an upstairs landing. Suddenly, Vera’s decrepit and paralyzed body comes tumbling down the steep stairs, smashing into the wooden banister and breaking her neck. Vera’s cryptic gasps suggest she is about to be murdered; Dolores, suddenly appearing at the top of the stairs and hurrying down and into the kitchen, frantically in search for something heavy to finish the job. She finds a marble rolling pin and rushes back into the foyer; unable to bring herself to bash in the dowager’s skull; the sudden appearance of the local mail carrier, horrified by what he discovers, ascertaining Vera has, in fact, died from injuries sustained in the fall.
Enter Constable Frank Stamshaw (John C. Reilly) to make the arrest. In short order, Dolores is charged with the crime of murder. Refusing to argue in her own defense, and unable to afford counsel, Dolores is combative with Det. John Mackey who intends to nail her to a cross in court via the court of popular opinion. We cut to New York where Dolores’ daughter, Selena is in a heated discussion with her editor, Peter (Eric Bogosian). A cryptic message arrives, alerting Selena to her mother’s plight. Ever as bitter toward and suspicious of her own mother, Selena nevertheless comes home to defend Dolores from Mackey. Dolores holds steadfast. She is not a killer. Mackey would disagree. Indeed, so do the ‘good’ people of Little Tall Island who have always suspected Dolores murdered her own husband, Joe St. George some twenty years earlier. As Mackey had no proof then, he is fanatically invested to see Dolores convicted for Vera’s murder instead, especially when it is revealed Vera left all her worldly possessions and money to Dolores in her Will.
For Selena, coming home has quickly escalated into a trial by fire. She cannot even stand to be in the same room as Dolores; is thoroughly disgusted by her mother’s indifference, and, finds Little Tall teeming with the sort of hypocritical and bigoted accusatory glares from passersby that make her despise the whole human race equally; some bold enough to vandalize Dolores’ dilapidated shack/others, merely cowardly enough to taunt and shout insults as she walks down the street. Selena grapples with her own hostility. But Dolores remains stone-faced and aloof. Ah, but Selena is in for a rather rude awakening. Her own life has already spiraled out of control. Despite escaping to the big city her demons have dogged and denied her even a moment’s respite for personal happiness. She is currently seeming a psychiatrist, popping pills for depression/others, to help her sleep, and has thoroughly lost her way; unable to have any sort of meaningful relationship with a man. It’s all Dolores’ fault. She ruined Selena’s life. Or did she?
We regress, in flashbacks into Selena’s less than perfect childhood. Then, Selena took her father’s side. Despite his frequent bouts of alcoholism, Joe is more laid back and easy to get along with…at first. Dolores marriage to Joe is not always volatile. But quickly we witness his maliciousness and violent nature towards her. When Selena is not in the room, Joe strikes Dolores with a heavy log meant for the stove, all but crippling her. He then forces Dolores to make dinner for the family. Partly to escape her husband’s perverse cruelties; also, to make enough money to put their daughter through college, Dolores interviews for a job as a housemaid working for Vera Donovan. Vera is a gargoyle; Dolores overhearing the viper humiliate the former housemaid to the brink of tears before firing her on the spot. No stranger to such verbal abuse, Dolores accepts the position and takes everything Vera has to dole out. Ironically, Dolores’ penitence and her attention to every last detail, keeping Vera’s abode sparkling and always ready to receive guests, greatly impresses the vengeful maven. Soon, she entrusts Dolores not only to look after her personal effects, but also manage the rest of the household staff.
With Dolores’ newfound confidence comes a more antagonistic stance against Joe. In retaliation, she swings a bottle at his head, severely cutting his scalp, and further activating the threat of total annihilation by raising the kindling axe overhead in a menacing manner. Dolores vows to put an end to Joe if ever again he raises a hand against her. Once more, thirteen-year old Selena stumbles upon the scene too late and, unaware of Joe’s abuse, instead assumes Dolores is the instigator for their marital strife. Eventually, Selena begins to see the light. But by then, Joe has convinced her to partake of some mutual heavy petting that leaves the girl frightened and bewildered. The sexual abuse escalates to the point where Joe has coaxes his daughter to hand-pleasure him. Dolores is, as yet quite unaware as to why Selena’s mood has more recently turned from wounded to scornful. But daylight begins to glimmer when Dolores is informed by the bank Joe has syphoned virtually every last penny of her hard-earned $3000, scrimped and saved to start a college fund for Selena.
In the present, Dolores falls prey to Mackey’s intense interrogation tactics. She tells Mackey that Vera flung herself down the stairs out of desperation and then pleaded with Dolores to finish the job. As nothing about this seems to ring true, particularly after Mackey reveals to Dolores that Vera’s eight-year old Last Will and Testament bequeaths everything to her, Mackey insists Dolores admit her guilt and surrender to the authorities. Selena is ready to believe the worst, especially after Dolores reveals Joe’s sexual abuse. Having suppressed these memories, Selena becomes enraged by this public airing of the family’s dirty laundry. She storms off, leaving Dolores to fend for herself. In flashback, we witness Dolores confess to Vera her suspicions about Joe. Vera is seething. She confides in Dolores, ‘husbands die all the time’ and hints she likely helped Jack into his early grave after learning of his infidelities with a secretary. Implanting the notion of making Joe’s death look like an accident, Vera hastens Dolores to reconsider what Joe’s child abuse has done to Selena. In reply, Dolores plots to set up Joe to have his accident.
As the whole town prepares for the solar eclipse, Vera deliberately gives Dolores the afternoon off after she has prepped her house for another lavish social gathering. Joe is surprised to see his wife home early; toting booze and party favors for the eclipse. Unaware he is being set up, Joe indulges in strong drink, polishing off a whole bottle of wine in no time. Now, Dolores confronts him with his embezzlement of Selena’s college fund. Joe is cocky at first. But when Dolores also suggests she knows too much about him and Selena, Joe attempts to strangle his wife on the front porch. Escaping his clutches, Dolores leads her vial husband through some dense underbrush. Earlier, she had almost fallen down an old boarded up well in pursuit of Selena. Now, Dolores escorts Joe to this same point of no return. Unaware of the danger ahead, he plummets to his death down the narrow shaft, but not before realizing Dolores’ precisely intended to put an end to his tyranny. The eclipse masks this foul play just long enough for Dolores to return with a flashlight, to confirm the death, and plant the empty bottle nearby, thus ensuring police assume Joe fell to his death from sheer drunkenness.
In the present, Selena packs her bags and prepares to return to New York. She discovers a tape cassette tucked into her purse. On it, Dolores has confessed the whole story of Joe’s demise for her daughter’s benefit. We regress to the moment when Vera, having had enough of her infirmity, wheeled herself to the landing and, pushing Dolores aside, deliberately hurled herself down this flight of stairs in a death wish. Dolores’ taped confession continues with an account of Selena’s molestation that triggers a repressed memory for Selena; the instance aboard the same ferry she is now using to cross the channel; witnessing Joe forced her younger self to perform a hand job on him.
Realizing her mother was telling the truth all along, Selena rushes back to attend the coroner’s inquest in Dolores’ defense. Mackey is already in full flourish, providing the framework – and frame-up – for Dolores to be hanged for murder. Confidently, Selena informs the detective about his misguided circumstantial evidence. Mackey’s better judgement is clouded by his personal vendetta. Selena further points to the absurdity in assuming Dolores would have murdered Vera for her money. If, in fact, Dolores knew about the Will earlier, as Mackey has inferred, would she have waited eight years to off her employer for the inheritance? Instead, Dolores moved in and cared for Vera as a devoted sibling, after the maven suffered a debilitating stroke. Lastly, there is no evidence – other than Mackey’s misgiving – Dolores premeditated Joe’s demise. Knowing whatever transpired Dolores likely did what she had to, to liberate Selena, mother and daughter are reconciled on the wharf before Selena departs for New York. Perhaps both women can now begin to discover their own paths to happiness, so long denied them.
Dolores Claiborne’s finale is rather anticlimactic, and, I suspect, chiefly the reason many critics found it a rather weak-kneed follow-up to Bates’ galvanized performance as psychotic Annie Wilkes in Misery. Audiences’ anticipation at the time was likely geared toward Bates playing crazy yet again. For those expecting a more gruesome outing a la Stephen King, Taylor Hackford’s methodically paced character study, given unusual plausibility and scope, never to teeter into caricature, leaves the viewer somewhat deflated. And yet, Dolores Claiborne is a thoroughly engrossing thriller. Bates is the heroine, not the villain – and that, for some, is still a problem. Yet, removed from distributor, Castlerock’s misguided publicity, playing up the angle of Bates as yet another homicidal maniac, Dolores Claiborne emerges as a finely wrought/psychologically complex mystery.
Kathy Bates is in very fine form as the titular Dolores; convincingly mastered the New England drawl and walking a very fine tightrope to keep us guessing whether or not she is, in fact, a serial killer, the innocent, or perhaps neither entirely, but a little of both. Deserved kudos too to Hackford, for refusing to go the ‘quick and dirty’ route, creating an unusual flow between the flashback sequences and the unraveling modern-day narrative. Gabriel Beristain’s moody cinematography and Danny Elfin’s spooky underscore maintain consistent somberness. This bodes well for a dark tale about a mother’s sacrifice, too late to spare youth the truth. In the end, Dolores Claiborne is a magnificently brooding investigation piece, far more intelligently scripted than most of its ilk, and as compelling as Rob Reiner’s ‘other’ King masterpiece to have won Bates her only Best Actress Academy Award. Dolores Claiborne is no Misery. Fair enough. Question: why does it have to be?
Warner Archive’s (WAC) Blu-ray release is another predictable winner through and through. WAC’s uninterrupted streak of quality continues. Dolores Claiborne’s image is teeming with startling amounts of fine grain and detail, a rich and highly textured palette of colors, bang on black levels and superb contrast. You are going to like what you see – period. The 5.1 DTS advances over the tired old Dolby Digital DVD mix. In 1080p, Dolores Claiborne delivers the sort of fine grain and film-like presentation one would – and should – expect from all Blu-ray mastering of vintage catalog. Extras are confined to Taylor Hackford’s audio commentary from the 1994 DVD release. But it’s still worth a listen. Bottom line: no complaints here. We doff our caps to WAC again. There is no economy in releasing slap-dash transfers to hi-def. Now, if only WAC’s philosophy could trickle down throughout the rest of the industry it would be a very exciting time for film lovers everywhere. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)