I don’t think it’s possible to grow up when I did and not become at least a casual Stephen King fan. He catches some flak, good-natured and otherwise, for his fevered output, and even his most ardent defenders would admit that he misses almost as much as he hits. In particular, he has an unjustified reputation for making terrible movies. While it’s true that a lot of his prose — which leans heavily on stream-of-consciousness internal monologue to make points — is tough to adapt to a visual medium, the consistent number one spot in the IMDB’s Top 250 Movies is The Shawshank Redemption, which is adapted from a King work. The Mist is a modern masterpiece of horror, and a lot of people really like a little film called The Shining. There are others too: Stand By Me, Misery, and hell, even The Green Mile has its apologists.
Whatever you may think of King, you don’t get an opinion on him until you read The Long Walk and Misery. These works take King’s best traits, placing his everyman protagonists in the middle of an ordeal designed to break them and then finding what shakes out. Perhaps even more important, they’re brief, with none of the digressions that can either bog down or fill out King’s work, depending on your preference. Nary a word is wasted in either one. In fact, most of the better adaptations of King’s work come from his novellas — Shawshank, Stand By Me, and The Mist are all short pieces that benefit from a filmmaker’s eye.
The idea that the Lifetime network might want to take a crack at one of King’s works at first sounds kind of strange. But look back on some of the movies I’ve reviewed. We had an Amish serial killer, a lesbian murder-club, and an investigation into a brutal rape. When I heard that Lifetime was adapting his novella Big Driver from the collection Full Dark, No Stars, I only had a moment of “…the fuck?” before realizing that it made a disturbing amount of sense.
Full Dark, No Stars consists of four novellas (or three and one long story), and Big Driver is easily the second best of these. It’s King’s take on the rape-revenge story, a horror subgenre that reached its peak popularity in the 1970s. I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with that specific subgenre — I suspect that’s part of the point of it — because there is little more horrible to watch than a rape scene, no matter how satisfying the ultimate comeuppance is in the end. I Spit On Your Grave has divided critics since it came out, with Roger Ebert attacking its sexist nihilism while Carol Clover uncovered the deep meanings underneath. With this aside, it makes sense that of all the King stories out there, Lifetime chooses possibly the most Lifetimeiest (both in the traditional and new definitions for the word) to adapt.
Tess Thorne (Maria Bello) is a cozy mystery writer whose most famous creations, the Willow Grove Knitting Society, are a quartet of old women who solve mysteries. She gets invited to speak to a book club out in the boonies. Hoping to avoid the highway on the way back, Ramona Norville (a King name if ever there was one), the woman who runs the book club, gives Tess a shortcut through the woods. In the middle of nowhere, Tess suffers a blowout caused by a series of nail-covered boards set out in the street. A giant of a man — the titular Big Driver — happens by in a beat-up old pickup. He’s initially helpful, but he rapidly turns creepy, and when Tess discovers more nail-boards in the flatbed, he attacks her.
After the rape, he stuffs her in an old drainage pipe. She wakes up surrounded by the corpses of his other victims. She limps home, all the while having visions of the way the world will judge her for the assault. King is very good at talking about the negative side of fame, and he does it in ways that don’t feel whiney. Tess feels like she can’t go to the cops because her fame will turn it into a big story. She’ll stop being Tess Thorne and will become nothing more than the rape. She’s not having that, so employing the detective skills that made her a best selling mystery novelist, she figures out that Ramona Norville was the one who set her up, and Big Driver is her son, Lester. Tess tracks them both down (and Lester’s brother, who turns out to be part of it) and shoots them dead.
Here’s the crazy part: I kind of liked this movie. It’s just as unsubtle as your standard Lifetime flick, but it works dramatically. It even takes a Kingian literary device — Tess’s overactive imagination makes her interact with her GPS and Doreen, the leader of the WGKS (Olympia Dukakis), and a couple corpses — and makes it more or less work. Maria Bello is a fine actor, and she might not be bringing her A-game, but her B-game is still a hell of a lot better than most other A-games. Lifetime didn’t skimp on the horror, either. Whoever decided that Lizzie Borden needed great gore effects showed up here. While they aren’t that good, the corpses in the pipe are suitably gruesome, and the murders are laudably messy affairs.
The rape itself was fucking horrifying too. There’s no attempt to downplay or softpedal it. Big Driver and his family are monsters and the movie is only too happy to show you that. (Also, just an FYI if you want to watch it, because man… it’s seriously rough.) While some of that is to allow Tess to commit multiple murders and retain audience sympathy, it’s also important to show the consequences of violence. The movie even undermines Tess’s Liam Neesoning: at the site of her attack, there was a sign for soda with the phrase “Come and Get It!” She drew strength, like Inigo Montoya before her, from fantasizing about saying this to Big Driver. When she does, her gun misfires.
Director Mikael Salomon, who was the D-P on James Cameron’s most underrated movie, The Abyss, does truly excellent work. He starts the film with the standard Lifetime bright over-lighting, but as it takes a turn into darkness, he steps up his game, drenching the palette in gloomy grays and sickly yellows. He is saying in the beginning that it’s typical Lifetime because for Tess, it is. I know this isn’t the kind of compliment the network wants, but in certain shots, if you took the Lifetime logo out of the corner, you’d think it was from a real movie. He’s giving us the Stephen King Lifetime movie we never knew we always wanted.
The lighting and the turn is shown with the character of Tess as well. She’s a murder mystery writer, so she has a flippant attitude toward death. Confronted by the horror of the drain pipe, and later the mementos that Big Driver and his brother took, she sees true evil. I mean, the character was thrown into water and forced to emerge from a darkened pipe; is it any wonder that she experiences a rebirth?
So what did we learn? Never let anyone else program a route into your GPS. Sometimes the long way is better. And never put a bullet in the chamber beneath the hammer.