Author’s Note: Some spoilers populate this review, because it’s impossible to thoroughly appraise Misery without unpacking some of the film’s more macabre elements. The uninitiated are advised to watch the film ASAP, then return to this space.
The most famous non-fiction line coined by the recently departed screenwriting genius William Goldman is undoubtedly “Nobody knows anything,” a great dig at the expense of Hollywood tastemakers. That statement, coined in one of Goldman’s terrific behind-the-scenes screenwriting memoirs, Adventures In The Screen Trade (1983), was designed to reflect the fact that, essentially, churning out cinematic hits amounted to educated guesswork from everyone involved. When applied to William Goldman’s expert writing — captured across 24 produced screenplays (along with several official consultant jobs and probably dozens of unofficial script doctoring gigs), 16 novels, seven memoirs, an abundance of non-fiction magazine articles, a handful of theatrical plays and teleplays, and a children’s book — Goldman’s own theory rings false. William Goldman knew a whole lot about great writing.
Goldman himself, an all-time Hall of Famer in the annals of great great film scribes, penned plenty of wonderful entertainments. These include Harper (1965), Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969 — the film that earned him his first Oscar), The Stepford Wives (1975), All The President’s Men (1976 — the film that earned him his second Oscar), Marathon Man (1976), A Bridge Too Far (1977), The Princess Bride (1987), The Ghost And The Darkness (1996) and Absolute Power (1997). None of those great films will prepare you for the creeping discomfort of Goldman’s darkest movie, Misery (1990), the terrifying adaptation of Stephen King’s paranoid fever dream rumination on manic super-fandom. Goldman had hit a groove with Rob Reiner by the time they turned their attentions to Misery, following the critically lauded Princess Bride. Some may posit that Magic (1978), the Anthony Hopkins creep show about a killer ventriloquist’s dummy, is somehow scarier than Misery. Magic is more funny now than it is scary, and cannot hold a candle to Misery‘s exploration of our deepest-seeded insecurities.
When traveling from Colorado to his New York home, the car of hack romance novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) veers off the road amidst a brutal snowstorm. Profanity-averse former nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates, in an Oscar-winning turn), claiming to be Paul’s “number-one fan,” saves him from the wreckage. As Annie insists on taking care of the ailing, bedridden Paul at her home rather than moving him to a local hospital, the author begins to realize that the eerily smitten Annie may not be so much his savior as his captor. Meanwhile, Paul’s Manhattan publisher Marcia (Lauren Bacall) tries to track him down, as do Annie’s neighborhood sheriff Buster McCain (Richard Farnsworth) and his trusty deputy/wife Virginia (Frances Sternhagen).
Goldman, Reiner, cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (back when he was the Coen Brothers’ ace DP, prior to his tenure directing Men In Black movies), production designer Norman Garwood, Bates and Caan manage to milk the contained claustrophobic horror of Annie’s modest, isolated house for all its worth. Never before, and never since, has a simple farm home been so riddled with a sense of foreboding malevolence.
By the end of the first act, Annie’s initial veneer of sweetness has faded. Paul (and we) realize that he is actually in grave danger. As Paul discovers across several efficient, terrifying scenes, Annie Wilkes arrives in several spooky flavors. Three of them are masks: false wholesome niceness with an eerily wide smile, uncomfortably lover-lorn overfamiliarity, and a sort of minor-key understatement when she is feeling particularly homicidal. When peeled away, they reveal the truth: she is a bellowing behemoth, a psychotic monster pumped full of rage and anger from years of disappointment and isolation.
There has never been a creature, in cinema or literature, quite like Annie Wilkes. Annie is a raft of contradictions. She is possessively violent, yet she abhors vulgarity (but trust me, the way she says “You dirty bird” will haunt your dreams). She was tried in court for killing babies and murders someone in cold blood during the course of the movie, yet she can’t handle the death of her favorite fake character. Annie Wilkes the character has many parents, William Goldman chief among them.
The simple, affecting premise must have packed a special resonance for its creator. Stephen King, a famous author whose gruesome output surely attracts its fair share of weirdos, no doubt saw a lot of himself in this nightmare fan encounter scenario. Annie, a veritable Paul scholar, serves as an ultimate opponent in their lethal game of cat and mouse. She knows all about Paul’s writing process — so much so that when she tells him to burn the first non-romance novel manuscript he’s completed, the story of some tough, profane New York “street kids,” and he claims that his publisher and several others have copies, she can call his bluff. Annie knows that, out of writerly superstition, he only keeps one copy of his manuscript until he returns home from his writing retreats. When Paul strikes a match under the implicit threat of being burned alive by Annie, his pain hits us. When she forces him to resurrect Misery Chastain, the 19th century heroine of his romance novels, commissioning him to write a book while under her cruel care that is subject to her editorial oversight, we can imagine no fate worse for Paul Sheldon. He needed to move on from this character. Now his imprisonment becomes creative and spiritual, as well as physical.
The brilliant behind-the-scenes collaboration at the heart of Misery can be neatly summed up in the tale of the hobbling. In Stephen King’s terrifying novel upon which the film is based, Annie lobs off one of the bedridden Paul’s feet with an axe to prevent his escape from her secluded home, where he has been essentially imprisoned as she forces him to rewrite the ending to her favorite romance novel series. In Rob Reiner and William Goldman‘s film adaptation of Misery, Annie “merely” cripples Paul by breaking his ankles. Reiner suggested the change, and Goldman executed it to perfection on the page. Though Goldman protested the alteration at first, in the film, it’s an excruciatingly graphic moment to behold. Severing Paul’s feet would be a bridge too far, and shift the storytelling into gratuitous Saw territory. This tacit decision-making exchange highlights a great writer-director partnership.
Misery is a triumphant achievement, the result of several wonderful artisans collaborating on a deeply uncomfortable and singular story. And just like Paul Sheldon in the epilogue succeeding the movie’s cathartic, violent action climax, viewers will have plenty of trouble shaking Annie Wilkes and her disturbing transgressions from their heads. That is a credit to Goldman’s terrific, understated adaptation of King’s brilliant premise, as much as it is to Kathy Bates’ signature enactment of an all-time creep.