Directed by Taylor Hackford
Starring: Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Stratham, Christopher Plummer
Both of its stars, Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh, cited Dolores Claiborne as their favorite film experience. Based on the novel by Stephen King and boasting a screenplay from Tony Gilroy (The Jason Bourne films, Andor), Dolores Claiborne holds a 7.4/10 on IMDb, a 62 on Metacritic, and an 85% on Rotten Tomatoes.
My monthly themes make for initially awkward requirements when they coincide with a holiday. This year, Mother’s Day is juxtaposed with…
May is for Murder!
Dolores Claiborne, like its main character, fits the bill for both categories. Containing a cast, screenwriter, and source material of which a filmmaker can only dream, I had to check this one off my list.
Dolores Claiborne has struck again! After murdering her husband 20-odd years ago, she’s killed the elderly woman that she takes care of. Such a salacious crime has brought two people back to the small Maine island where the murderer lives–the detective whom she eluded the first time and her estranged daughter Selena, a haughty magazine reporter living in New York City.
Equally critical and ferociously protective of her mother, Selena fends off vulturous townsfolk and small-town officials while probing her mother for details. Selina wants to know what really happened, especially regarding the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of her father, alcoholic abuser Joe St. George. Once Dolores begins recounting her life, however, Selina is transported back to her traumatic upbringing. As Selina confronts her repressed past, she toys with a devastating possibility–Dolores Claiborne did the right thing, both then and now.
This movie is a perfect example of the saying “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” Dolores Claiborne is a drama with fantastic performances, yet has enough intrigue to engage. This question of Dolores’s motives keeps the movie from feeling turgid, something many contemporary awards-bait films could learn. The mid-budget, 35mm-film look makes the movie dates, but in a stately way; its Hollywood sheen makes it timeless.
That same sheen, however, makes Dolores Claiborne feel heightened. I never felt like I was watching a conversation–just powerful actors ACTING! Part of that feeling is due to Stephen King’s particular dialogue patterns but much of it feels like old-fashioned direction. Voices over-project, movements occur with purposeful identity, and actors wait until their scene partners are done with their monologues to begin speaking. Put another way, I felt like the cast, with every action, was saying to the audience, “Look at me and how good I act!” rather than just being the person they’re playing.
Another old-fashioned attitude within the film is the story’s treatment of Selina’s reliance on medication. Yes, Selina is using drugs to numb her childhood pain and trauma, but the movie has the attitude that, by confronting her past, Selina won’t need to take any of those pills anymore. The real answer is that it depends. From personal experience, I can say that confronting and treating past trauma has cut my mental-health struggles in half, but I still require medication to treat the remainder. Please do not take the advice of a near-30-year-old film regarding antidepressants.
That said, I hope the previous two paragraphs doesn’t put potential viewers off. Dolores Claiborne was well worth my time, and I solidly recommend it. If it feels old-fashioned, though, these are the reasons why.
Yes, but I have a feeling that the older a viewer is, the more they’ll enjoy it. Not only is the aforementioned traditional feel of Dolores Claiborne a possible hurdle for younger people, but the actors within are also of their time. In 1995, Kathy Bates was still hot off of her Oscar win for Misery while Jennifer Jason Leigh had just finished Single White Female. Christopher Plummer, meanwhile, was enjoying a career resurgence, starring in Star Trek VI and 12 Monkeys. While I ultimately think this movie is moving for near any viewer, the allure of the billed movie stars will likely be lost on those under 30.
Younger people might get roped into watching this movie anyways. Dolores Claiborne is to moms what The Shawshank Redemption is to dads. It courageously celebrates the pains, seen and unseen, that many mothers go through for their children, and shows how deep a mother’s love can extend. If a reader’s looking for a movie night with mom, give Dolores Claiborne a chance to tell her story.