How Misery Remains a Classic Despite Its Miscast Lead - VRGyani News and Media


Tuesday, October 12, 2021

How Misery Remains a Classic Despite Its Miscast Lead

Misery, Rob Reiner’s classic thriller about a romance author held hostage by an unstable fan, is getting a 4K Ultra HD release this week, just in time for its 31st anniversary this November. The movie stars Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, a murderous shut-in who stumbles upon her favorite writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) in the wreckage of a brutal car accident near her isolated home in the mountains of Colorado. Paul was returning from a cabin retreat after completing his newest manuscript but was caught in a blizzard and drove off the road. (Un)luckily, in addition to being a Paul Sheldon superfan, Annie is a nurse, so she carries Paul back to her house to treat him until the storm passes. However, it quickly becomes clear that she has no intention of ever letting him leave. Trapped as a prisoner in Annie’s house, with no way of letting anyone know where he is, Paul is forced to write a sequel to Annie’s favorite Paul Sheldon book series, titled Misery.

RELATED: Why 'Misery' Hammers Harder in 2020

Bates delivers a phenomenal performance as Annie, which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She’s a terrifying figure, flying between bouts of earnest charm and fits of murderous rage with very little provocation, if any at all. She’s both a gentle caretaker and a cruel tormenter, and Paul has no way of anticipating which version is going to walk through the door at any given moment. She reignites a creative spark in him that allows him to approach his writing in an exciting new way, but she also demolishes his feet with a sledgehammer after discovering that he’s been sneaking out of his room. The reason Misery became a bonafide phenomenon after its release, and the reason you’ve probably heard of it even if you’ve never seen it, is entirely due to Kathy Bates’ unforgettable performance as Annie Wilkes.

James Caan’s performance is…less good.

Don’t get me wrong – James Caan is obviously a good actor. He’s a screen legend, he’s played several memorable characters throughout his career, and he has an extremely natural charisma that comes through in every role. But he’s also James Caan, a Hollywood tough guy whose most famous character is the hot-headed Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, a man who savagely beats another man with a trash can. And while Caan still imbues Paul Sheldon with the same natural charisma he brings to every film, he portrays Paul as being irritated with Annie Wilkes, rather than gripped with the kind of primal terror the character is meant to be experiencing. He perpetually looks like he can’t wait to smack the shit out of her, and he comes across as more annoyed with his captivity than anything else.

You can see the thought process behind Caan’s casting – it’s a subversion of his “tough guy” persona. Paul is physically helpless for the entire movie; his legs are shattered, his shoulder is busted, and Annie is trying her best to keep him doped up. Audiences weren’t used to seeing Sonny Corleone trapped in a situation he couldn’t punch his way out of, and in Misery, he is at the mercy of someone he should normally be able to overpower. (To clarify, I’m talking about the audience’s perception of the power balance, because the film makes it clear that Annie is as strong as an ox.) A recent stage adaptation of Misery followed the same line of thinking, casting Bruce Willis as Paul opposite Laurie Metcalf as Annie.

But the subversion ultimately doesn’t work. Caan’s performance rarely communicates fear, which clips Misery’s wings in a way that makes it difficult for the film to recover. It’s tense, but not in the way the Stephen King novel upon which the film is based was written, and arguably not in the way that Reiner intended. Paul and Annie’s relationship is meant to be that of a tortured prisoner and his cruel jailer. We should be sweating with dread every time Annie walks into Paul’s bedroom. But because of Caan’s performance, their relationship is closer to that of McMurphy and Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in that we feel outraged at the injustice of Paul’s treatment and imprisonment more often than we feel genuinely afraid. We know Paul is going to be ok, because Caan’s performance constantly reassures us that it’s only a matter of time until he beats Annie to death with his typewriter and escapes. It’s not a bad instinct and isn’t necessarily unworkable (for instance, we knew McMurphy was going to be okay in Cuckoo’s Nest until he suddenly wasn’t), but it hobbles Misery's effectiveness as a thriller like a sledgehammer to the ankle. Caan's portrayal of Paul doesn’t match the tone of King’s story, or the captivating frenzy of Bates’ performance.

And that's the thing. Bates is so good that it almost doesn't matter what else is happening around her. Misery is an undeniable classic – I’m sitting here writing about it in celebration of a pristine new 4K Ultra HD edition of the film more than three decades after its original release. But it is arguably a classic in spite of itself. Much like Training Day, Misery is a movie that could’ve easily been completely forgotten had it not been for the strength of one truly outstanding performance, and Kathy Bates’ turn as Annie Wilkes remains as horrifically magnetic as it ever was. She elevates Misery from an uneven thriller to an essential one.

KEEP READING: 5 Stephen King Adaptations That Deserve a Better Remake

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