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
by DAVID KEYES
being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to."
from "Dolores Claiborne"
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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?
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, Cinemaphile.org.
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