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Dolores Claiborne (1995)



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There's a stock Stephen King character that irritates me by its continual reoccurrence in his stories. It's the Inexhaustibly Evil Yelling Guy, an irredeemable badguy whose primary purpose is to say mean things in a harsh tone of voice and make the audience hate him. This bothers me because the character is one-dimensional. "Mean" is his only defining characteristic. In Dolores Claiborne, this character is played by David Strathairn. He's the dead husband of the title character, played by Kathy Bates. In flashbacks, we see the events that lead up to his death. This irritation bothered me much less than usual, however, because the other characters were so sharply drawn and the story was so compelling.

Here's the set-up: there's a fight at the top of the stairs. A woman falls down it but isn't quite dead. Claiborne rushes into the kitchen, finds a frying pan, and apparently attempts to finish the job -- when she's caught in the act by a mailman. She's accused of murder, which grabs the attention of her estranged daughter, who returns both to help out to resolve some issues in her own life. As she delves into the mystery, she learns more about herself than she probably would have liked. Slowly but surely, dark secrets of the past are brought to light, and ultimately we understand what happened not only with the woman's death but with that of Inexhaustibly Evil Yelling Guy, too.

The relationship between mother and daughter is the central plot line, and it's the strongest part of the film. The daughter is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her chemistry with Bates is remarkable, and their performances -- particularly Bates' -- are magnificent.

Although I am not fond of most of Stephen King's stories, some good movies have been made out of his non-supernatural horror novels. This is one. Even so, I think he crawls too deeply into the macabre than he needs to, but there's no questioning the strength and depth of the human drama he can create. Dolores Claiborne is a top-notch example.