Dolores Claiborne
Rating -

Horror (US); 1995; Rated R; 131 Minutes

Kathy Bates: Dolores Claiborne
Jennifer Jason Leigh: Selena St. George
David Strathairn: Joe St. George
Judy Parfitt: Vera Donovan
Christopher Plummer: Detective Mackey

Produced by Taylor Hackford and Charles Mulvehill; Directed by Taylor Hackford; Screenwritten by Tony Gilroy

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Written by DAVID KEYES

"Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to."

-Dialogue from "Dolores Claiborne"

Poor Dolores. It's not everyday you meet a woman whose life has done to her what most death sentences couldn't do to prison inmates. She's been stepped on, put down, humiliated, chewed up, and spit out--you name it, she's been through all of it. Several women have gone through hell and back, but not many of them are willing to pick up the pieces afterwards and move on with their lives as if it never happened. Even at the worst of times, like when she's suspected of murder, do you hear her complaining? Do you see her giving up after all the heartache she endures? Most people would; she doesn't. When a kid asks her on the street if she's killed anyone else recently, what does she do? She simply turns to him and replies, "No, but if I ever do I know exactly where I'm gonna start."

You can't help but feel sorry for the woman. She's survived an alcoholic and abusive husband, a strict boss who paid her a measly $40 a week, a confused daughter who blames her for her father's death, a district attorney who constantly points his finger in her face, and several vandalist acts on her home and property as she is accused of crimes she did not commit, even though all signs point to her.

It's done a real number on poor, old, lonely Dolores. When she steps on screen in "Dolores Claiborne," she's withered, gloomy, and bitterly aged from what her life has done to her. In one scene, she explains, "You can tell a person's life by looking at their hands." Those hands, along with an unraveling crime, help reveal a bitter past of secrets that relate to and unfold a series of events in the present, as Dolores is accused of murdering her boss and is questioned by her child about the death of her father.

The movie makes it obviously clear in the opening scene that Ms. Claiborne is everything spray-painted walls say: a cold-blooded, ruthless killer. The opening shot captures the silhouettes of two important characters at the top of a towering staircase. The figures, as we hear them argue, separate when it looks as if one of them pushes the other down the stairs in frustration. The one who falls is Vera Donovan, played by Judy Parfitt, and the other person, of course, is old, tired, always-the-guilty-party Dolores. When she runs down those steps to see her victim sprawled out and paralyzed, what does she do? Oh, nothing much; she simply exits to the kitchen and grabs a rolling pin to finish the job she started. Too bad that the mail man walked in before she let Vera have that final whack.

In case you're slow or confused, this is the point where you're supposed to say, "How can we feel sorry for her when she's obviously guilty of the crime?" Indeed, if that crossed your mind, you've been paying attention. Yet, if it crossed your mind, you haven't been paying enough attention. Psychological thrillers like this have had a history of intentionally leaving out segments of a scene so that our opinions take drastic turns when more of the scene is revealed later. A few minutes more into the movie, after Dolores' daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) asks her about the crime she's suspected of, distraught old Dolores explains the whole scene. As portrayed through a striking flashback, more dialogue and footage are revealed to completely twist what we suspected it all meant in the first place. After Vera's fateful fall, there's an explanation that it was not really Dolores who pushed her down those steps. Ms. Claiborne was merely trying to prevent her half-paralyzed employer from attempting suicide, an attempt which obviously failed. The rolling pin comes in after Vera requests Dolores to finish the job she had already started. She explains, helplessly, "Don't let me die in a hospital. Kill me now."

This is not the first time old Dolores is suspected of murder; twenty-something years ago, her husband, Joe, was 'accidentally' killed when he fell down a well that was on his property--a well which, apparently, was only discovered hours before when Dolores herself tripped over the wood that boarded it up. Though his death was ruled accidental, the entire thing was all Dolores' doing. Through another series of flashbacks, we witness the relationship of Ms. Claiborne and her husband crumble as time passes. Joe gambles away her life savings, molests Selena, their daughter, and beats on his wife just like your average alcoholic father. But Dolores is a much stronger, vibrant person. At the height of a solar eclipse, she lures Joe into a trap that costs his life just as the eclipse unfolds. This is perhaps the reason why Dolores' daughter, Selena, does not admire her mother much, and possibly why she had a nervous breakdown and blocked all of the painful memories out of her head.

The movie has two different, distinct tones that carry out the unfolding plot. The present day is done in unsatisfying, dark and murky colors, as if the landscapes reflect the emotions of their characters. The flashbacks take place with more vibrant and striking color, and by the time you realize the pattern of flashbacks and present-day events, its obvious that the film makers wanted you to pay closer attention to the events of the past. They are clearly more important. Without them, how would we ever come to terms with Dolores' actions?

The script, written by Tony Gilroy, stays true to the themes of King's novel and relishes the thoughts and actions Dolores used throughout her life. Bates plays the title character in several satisfying ways, just as she did with Annie in another Stephen King film, appropriately titled "Misery." That film, too, canvassed the life and times of a woman beyond normal humanity. As was the case with that movie, though, Bates' character seemed innocent, but was more or less the villain that we did not anticipate. "Dolores Claiborne" has that assumption that we as human beings can be made out to be the villains when we are only doing what is in our best interest. A New England housewife, working for $40 dollars a week, all for her daughter, is obviously a struggling woman. When she's had enough, watch out. As the film's 1994 tagline stated, "Sometimes, an accident can be an unhappy woman's best friend."


1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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