Misery (1990)

According to my mom Misery was the first movie I ever watched start to finish, late one night in one of my first few weeks when I just didn’t want to sleep. Apparently all I wanted to do was watch an utterly insane Kathy Bates hold James Caan against his will in her snowy, isolated Colorado home. A lifetime of watching movies later, I returned to that first movie that started it all for me as a viewer (full disclosure: I can’t seem to find my notes on it from a couple decades back).

My first thought upon re-watching my first film: it’s no wonder I couldn’t sleep! I probably couldn’t sleep for weeks. Kathy Bates is so terrifyingly good as the psychotic Annie Wilkes — writer Paul Sheldon’s (James Caan) “biggest fan” — that bipolar does not even being to describe her. One second, she is exactly as self-advertised: Sheldon’s biggest fan, in pure admiration. However, one slip up by Sheldon, such as killing off the main character in his “Misery” series of novels, and she becomes a different person all together — violent, inconsolable, and capable of anything. Regardless of which mood Wilkes happens to be in, though, it is always clear that she will not let her favorite writer go, ever. They are meant to be together, or at least that’s what she thinks.

Wilkes’ proclivity to change from adoring fan to the kind of violent psychopath who would bash someone’s feet with a sledgehammer to keep them from ever leaving creates an air of suspense throughout the entire movie. For a simple plot and really just two characters and one contained setting (save for the sheriff out investigating), the movie manages to be pulse pounding for its entirety. This movie is not, it turns out, fit for a newborn.

On top of Wilkes’, err, mood swings, director Rob Reiner achieves some of the best suspense when Wilkes leaves Sheldon alone and he tries to escape and/or explore. The viewer knows that if Wilkes returns too soon to find Sheldon out of his room, nothing good will happen. And Sheldon can’t exactly move very fast or even hope to escape on his own with two broken legs, making his imprisonment that much more psychologically tough on both him and the viewer.

The plot of someone being held prisoner by chains and tortured has been played out countless times. However, to see someone shackled partly by their own physical impairments and partly by someone who, on the surface, appears not to be an evil, torturous demon is far more unsettling. It is not a physical torture; it is slow psychological torture for both Sheldon and the viewer (especially if the viewer is but weeks old).

The only break from the constant stress over what Wilkes might do is Sheriff Buster (Richard Farnsworth) investigating the situation. This part of the story has a Fargo feel to it (though perhaps it should be the other way around, seeing as Fargo came out six years after Misery) with an investigation in a small, snowy town in the middle of nowhere being led by a surprisingly competent detective. Buster does all he can to find Sheldon, and, unfortunately, he succeeds, leading to his death.

I suppose we were all naïve to think that things could end so smoothly; we were quickly blown out of that perception by Annie Wilkes’ shotgun. Wilkes and Sheldon had gone too far together for an outsider to tear them apart. Aside from Buster, both Sheldon and the viewer know that Wilkes is not afraid to kill, something her disturbingly-titled scrapbook “Memory Lane” revealed with a series of newspaper clippings. If Sheldon doesn’t act, he will be the next victim.

We’re allowed a small sigh of relief at the end of Misery, but it’s more than Paul Sheldon is allowed. It is understandable that he would never be the same again. Annie Wilkes is an inimitable type of scary. From one second to the next, it is impossible to know which side of herself she will show, the adoring fan, the overburdened caretaker, or the full on psychopath. It is hard to say which side is scariest, but, usually, it is the adoring fan side that is most unnerving because Sheldon and the viewer know full well it won’t last.

Of course, Wilkes’ ability to keep us unsettled for the whole movie comes partly from the writing but mostly from Kathy Bates’ performance. Like Anthony Hopkins would do the following year, Bates successfully scared the Academy so well they gave her the (well-deserved) Oscar. Like Paul Sheldon, Annie Wilkes, real or not, is not someone who any viewer will forget any time soon after watching Misery. Bates and author Stephen King made sure of that. It truly is a wonder how I turned out so normal after being exposed to Bates’ Wilkes at such a young age. Hopefully in any parenting book these days it will explicitly say not to show your newborn Misery.