In my own personal hierarchy, Dolores Claiborne secures its spot as one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King novel. This film is a “horror” story sans chainsaws, hacked body parts or ghosts. Well, that last part is just partially correct, only here, the ghosts are psychological. Director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy have given us a mature and cleverly made thriller with superb acting from Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
The story centers on Claiborne (Kathy Bates), a housekeeper, and her daughter, Selena (Jennifer Lason Leigh) who have not seen each other in fifteen years. Selena works as a journalist in New York City. One day at work, she receives a fax containing a newspaper article from Bangor, Maine that states her mother is being held by the police, subject to arrest for the murder of her employer, Vera Donovan. Selena reluctantly forgoes a big assignment in Arizona and heads back to the small New England island where she grew up, and her mother still lives. Upon arriving, Selena meets Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer). Mackey is from the mainland and is heading up the investigation. He at first seems caring and concerned, but this facade hides a man with a personal agenda not yet revealed.
During the opening credits, we the audience, witnessed the incident between Dolores and Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt) that led to her death. From the camera’s perspective, it sure looks like Dolores pushed the wheelchair-bound Vera down a flight of stairs; ready to finish the old lady off with a rolling pin to the head when the mailman walks in catching her in the act. However, as the perceptive viewer knows, the camera can lie or at least not reveal the entire truth.
Donovan was a mean woman, a perfectionist who demanded everything is done to her exact instructions. Laundry had to be hung outside and down a long set of cement steps even in the coldest of Maine weather. And make sure there were always six clothespins on each sheet hung, not five or seven. She liked her silverware highly polished, enough so she can see her face in each spoon. She paid Dolores pittance for her slave services. Dolores Claiborne had plenty of motive to kill the old lady.
The relationship between Dolores and Selena is strained to say the least. Temporarily released by the police as Mackey works on building his case, mother and daughter move back to Dolores’ dilapidated home where all the bad memories quickly come flowing back. Selena has no use for her mother who she believes may have been involved in her father’s death. A chain smoker and heavy drinker, help Selena bury her childhood traumas.
Director Taylor Hackford nicely weaves back and forth between the past and present, slowly unveiling the family history that has led to this bitterly broken mother and daughter relationship. In the end, there are no family fences mended; relationships are not magically healed. The hurt is still there, but some truths, long hidden have resurfaced, and may or may not lead to some understanding, peace and possibly even forgiveness.
Performances across the board are well done, but it’s the match-up of Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh that stands out as they spar back and forth over the years and years of hurt, guilt, and distrust. The film has an excellent supporting cast led by Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn, John C. Reilly, Eric Bogosian and especially Judy Parfitt whose line, “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to,” can serve as a motto for Dolores’ entire life.
For Bates, this was her second go around in a Stephen King story. Her first was Misery, where she memorably played the unhinged number one fan to romance author James Caan. Here though, Bates is not crazy, but a woman whose life has been hard; long-suffering, both at home with an abusive alcoholic husband and at work as a workhorse employee.
King admirers may be disappointed with the lack of shock value; the most frightening thing in this film is the broken lives these characters have been forced to live.