This article is part of the Christopher Plummer Movie Blogathon I’m hosting this week. For a recap of Day 1 of the blogathon, click here; for Day 2, click here. Thanks to everyone who is participating!
As a psychological thriller, a mystery or even a horror film–all labels that have been applied to it–director Taylor Hackford’s Dolores Claiborne, adapted from the 1992 Stephen King novel, succeeds on many levels within these genres. But in a curious way it also transcends them. It’s tough to figure out exactly what pigeonhole Dolores Claiborne fits into, but once you stop trying and let the film work on its own terms, you may find the experience of watching it is very different than most other movies. Even apart from its feminist undercurrents, which was pretty courageous for a Hollywood film made in the mid-1990s, Dolores Claiborne toys with reality in a way you don’t often see in film. It’s only nominally a story about a mother and a daughter, a murder (?) and a broken family. What it’s really about is memory, and how memory can construct, reconstruct or deconstruct reality.
The film begins in a gloomy mansion in Maine in about 1995 (when the film was made). Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates), the outspoken, long-suffering caretaker of elderly millionaire widow Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt), is discovered by the mailman standing over Vera with a rolling pin, about to kill her, after evidently having thrown her down the stairs. Dolores is charged with murder by the town’s long-time police chief, John Mackey (Christopher Plummer). Mackey is eager to prove her guilty. Back in the 1970s, Dolores’s husband Joe (David Straithairn) died in a mysterious accident, having fallen down into a hidden well on his and Dolores’s property. Mackey believes she murdered him but could never prove it. Dolores’s now-adult daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), estranged from her mother, comes to Maine from New York to help her. As flashbacks of the Claibornes’ tumultuous life in the 1970s unfold, an uncertain and inconsistent picture of the past emerges, begging the question: what really happened to Joe, and why?
There’s a lot to love about Dolores Claiborne, starting with three standout performances. Kathy Bates has said that Dolores is her favorite of all the roles she’s played, and her portrayal of a headstrong but sensitive working woman is incredibly rich and evocative. David Straithairn is outstanding as the boorish, abusive alcoholic husband. What could have been a two-dimensional character pops with life and complexity in the film. As it happens, my sister knows Straithairn personally, and she says he’s one of the nicest people in the business; playing such a nasty villain here is a testament to his acting powers. And then, of course, there’s Plummer. The dogged, bloodhound-like devotion of Detective Mackey comes across as more of a personal obsession than a professional calling. Plummer’s full range of talent is on display here, again, like Straithairn’s role, exercised in fleshing out what might have been a pretty flat role on paper. This kind of thing is Plummer’s forte and helps push the whole film over the top. Even among the supporting cast there are standouts; Judy Parfitt as Vera Donovan has a wonderful richness to her character as well.
Narratively, the boldness of the film is that screenwriter Tom Gilroy and director Taylor Hackford aren’t afraid to engage with the ambiguities and contradictions that arise from remembered experience. Most movies seek to chronicle events as they happen; the audience experiences situations and occurrences in a foreshortened but largely literal present. Stories that unfold through flashback, however, are filtered through a character’s memory, and we (the audience) now have the problem of whether or not these memories are reliable. Misremembering or forgetting events can shape or distort a person’s entire relationship with another, as Selena discovers when she realizes she’s forgotten some pretty important things–most of them very unpleasant–that happened in her family back in the 1970s. Similarly, Dolores’s entire rapport with Vera rests on the latter’s confession of an old murder that may or may not have happened. What if these things aren’t literal truth? Can remembering something in a different way really change the past? This is what Dolores Claiborne makes me think about.
Kathy Bates’s powerful performance is on display in this key scene from Dolores Claiborne, also involving wonderful character actor Bob Gunton.
The climactic scene in the past takes place during a total solar eclipse that, in the maritime Maine resort community where Dolores lives and works, is a big deal for the locals. The way Hackford shoots these scenes paints them with a sort of surreal veneer, as if the world slips into kind of an alternate universe for a few minutes where anything can happen–and much does. Yet this whole sequence is narrated by Dolores to Selena after nearly 20 years. How can we be sure it happened this way? Courageously, Hackford never asks the viewer to accept any one specific version of events. It’s the memories, not objective reality, that drive the characters’ relations with one another. I love how this subtext works its way through the film. It’s pretty intelligent, for what could have been just another bad adaptation of a Stephen King story, like the dreadful Cujo.
Dolores Claiborne is a terrific film. Its performances, especially from Bates and Plummer, are amazing, and it’s a thought-provoking and highly evocative piece that also happens to be entertaining on its own terms. The games it plays with the shadows of the past will keep you guessing, and will make you think, perhaps, about what shadows might lurk in your own past.