Cinema: A Deadly Game of Nursing Care

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MISERY Directed by Rob Reiner; Screenplay by William Goldman

You are a reasonably healthy citizen of this world, used to going your own way and having your own way. Suddenly an accident immobilizes you in bed. There is almost nothing you can do for yourself. All of us have at least briefly tasted the anxiety of this situation, so we can sympathize with romance novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan), flat on his back with two broken legs, a broken arm and multiple cuts and contusions, products of a car accident on a slippery mountain road during a blizzard.

We can also understand why, as his mind begins to clear, he begins to wonder about the quality of his nursing care. Most of us have been there too, realizing we are utterly dependent upon the kindness of strangers. What do we really know about them? What if their kindness hides a crueler agenda? Take Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), for example. She seems a typical nursing type -- cheerful and bustling. But there is something, well, menacing about her size, her startling outbursts of bad temper and her excessive enthusiasm for Misery Chastain, heroine of the series of bodice rippers Sheldon has been turning out for years.

It is the business of the best modern horror movies -- and Misery is definitely one of the best -- to convert such commonplace anxieties, smoothly and plausibly, into deliciously prolonged worst-case scenarios. Almost casually, we learn there was nothing accidental about Annie's being there to rescue Paul after his accident; she had been stalking him as he finished a new book at a neighboring resort. Gradually, it dawns on us that she is never going to surrender him to a hospital. She is going to keep him in her isolated house -- no phones, no visitors, just her special, suffocating brand of TLC.

This consists of flattery, flirtatiousness and rigorously enforced literary standards. Discovering that the manuscript Paul is carrying is not about Misery and contains cusswords besides, she forces him to burn it. Learning that his latest Misery novel will be the last (he has killed her off), Annie forces Paul to write a new one, rescuing her beloved character from the grave. Finding that Paul has tried to escape this task, she sweetly explains she is obliged to rebreak his legs and does so as calmly as if she were administering aspirin.

Bates' performance is simply spectacular. She can accelerate from simpering girlishness to looming monstrosity with head-spinning -- possibly Oscar- winning -- speed. Caan partners her with edgy smarts, and their deadly game does something more than pit temporary weakness against sociopathic passion. It also places ironic literary intelligence in conflict with the whacked-out innocence of fandom, and has a smart subtext of class warfare about it too. The actors are supported by the best kind of writerly craft and directorial technique, the kind that refuses to call attention to itself, never gets caught straining for scares or laughs. Popular moviemaking -- elegantly economical, artlessly artful -- doesn't get much better than this.