Misery is a deceptively simple film that grabs us almost immediately by the throat and refuses to let go until the last frame. Here’s the gist of it: Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is the author of a best-selling series of historical romance novels centered around a buxom heroine named Misery Chastain. Having just completed a new manuscript—one that doesn’t feature Misery and might just be the book that wins him the respect of critics—Sheldon leaves the Colorado hotel where he has been working for several weeks to go back to New York City. During the drive he is caught in a blinding blizzard that sends his car careering off the road into a ditch. The car is overturned. The snow keeps piling up. All seems pretty dire for our hero until he is rescued by a mysterious figure. A few days later the author wakes up in the home of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a seemingly pleasant woman who lives alone on her farm and who has installed the injured author in her downstairs guest room. She also takes great pleasure in assuring him that she is “his number one fan.” Things seem fine but very soon Paul Sheldon realizes that there is something not quite right about the nurse who saved him from almost certain death. For Annie Wilkes has a slight problem. She just happens to be psychotic and she’s also not too happy about the ending of his last Misery book. Now installed in her isolated farmhouse with two shattered legs, she demands he write a new book just for her. Paul agrees, for this deadline is different. This deadline may well be his own life.
Adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name Misery is terrific entertainment. It is propelled by a smart script and simple direction that recalls the Hitchcock films that were its clear inspiration. There are also some very fine perfomances in this film that elevate it from a good movie into a great one. As Paul Sheldon, James Caan is superb. Everything is written on the man’s face here. One is struck by how much of his acting was communciated through his eyes. His fear, his pain, his desperation—sometimes all of these at once—are on display as he moves through long suspense sequences without dialogue. It is a painfully real performance.
But this film really belongs to Kathy Bates. Her Annie Wilkes is truly one of the great movie villains of all time. Her sweet demeanor and humor, mixed with a terrifying insanity, serve to create a mesmerizing character. When she is on screen it is impossible to turn away, and the scenes between her and Caan are filled with a nerve racking tension. Bates won a well deserved Best Actress Oscar for this chilling part. Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhangen round out the small cast with their nicely nuanced performances as well. Misery is one of the best suspense shockers. One of those I-couldn’t-keep-my-eyes-off-it movies. A masterpiece.