What To Watch: The Woman at The Center in ‘Dolores Claiborne’ (1995)

Stephen King adaptation remains one of the best of his ever made.

Dolores Claiborne is a 1995 thriller about city reporter who returns to her small hometown after her mother is arrested for murder, uncovering damaging truths from her past.

Historically, adaptations of Stephen King writings into film or televisions programs have been a mix of truly awful to downright amazing. His prolific career in short stories, novellas and books have been source for a surprising number of projects since the 1980s and continue to be made and remade to this day. What’s perhaps most admirable about these productions has been the sheer variety of genres King’s covered, and while horror has long been the go-to, it is his dramas that have earned the highest marks.

Think of The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption and right away you can see what I mean. His flair for dramatic storytelling is equalled only by the directors who bring these works to the screen, films that have gone on to win multiple awards and fans from around the world. While Dolores Claiborne is not quite in the same company with these other titles, it is a great drama and far removed from the classic horror we’ve mostly become associated with King. Here’s why.

Dolores Claiborne
Dolores Claiborne, 1995 © Castle Rock Entertainment

THE STORY: Directed by the always impressive Taylor Hackford, who most might remember from his work behind the camera in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Ray (2004), Dolores Claiborne follows two women, Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a highly successful New York City journalist barely dealing with deep depression and bouts of alcoholism and her mother Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates), a domestic worker on an estate in Maine.

Dolores is in big trouble. She was caught standing over the body of her employer Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt), holding a rolling pin. When Vera dies, Dolores is arrested and needs help, mostly because, well, this isn’t the first time it’s happened with Dolores, she thought responsible for the death of her husband Joe (David Strathairn) twenty years earlier. While the town rallies around her conviction, it also makes Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer) determined to see her rot in jail. But there are secrets and horrors long thought lost and Selena, who thinks her mother guilty as well discovers she might be wrong about what she believes happened in the past.

Dolores Claiborne
Dolores Claiborne, 1995 © Castle Rock Entertainment

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Atmosphere is a catch-all word used often to describe a movie, meant to instill a bit of mood to the setting, and while it might be overused, I’m using it here anyway because Hackford builds it well, giving the picture a distinctive feel. There is a constant feeling that something isn’t right and the switches is timelines and his use of sallow colors mix to make a truly haunting experience.

Dolores Claiborne
Dolores Claiborne, 1995 © Castle Rock Entertainment

That said, this is all about the performances with a towering turn by Bates who, five years earlier had won an Oscar for her role in another King story called Misery. Here she is almost better in a disturbing and troubling display that earned her further praise, playing a mother who has lived through great torment and came out the other side looking like a monster, forced to keep the truth a secret. It’s stunning work and is a monumental piece of acting.

Dolores Claiborne
Dolores Claiborne, 1995 © Castle Rock Entertainment

Others are nearly her equal, with Leigh and Plummer especially good, but pay attention to Strathairn in a decidedly icky role who sells the smarmy and creepy Joe with deliciously foul work. He’s a terrific villain who gets a little lost in the shadow of his co-stars but deserves a closer look.

Dolores Claiborne
Dolores Claiborne, 1995 © Castle Rock Entertainment

A GREAT MOMENT: That in mind, there are several great moments in Dolores Claiborne, with Hackford executing solid drama and action that skims along and through a number of compelling locations, including flashbacks and courtroom scenes. There are some moments that revolt and other that inspire and the balance in them all is this fantastical authenticity about it where it feel dream-like while also quite grounded. That’s surely a compliment to Hackford.

Dolores Claiborne
Dolores Claiborne, 1995 © Castle Rock Entertainment

That is perhaps best illustrated in a shocking moment in Dolores’ kitchen seen in a flashback with her husband Joe, the two always layered in tension, but here starting in a bit of humor as Joe seems delighted in himself over his split trousers, joking about the exposure of his backside. Feeling a moment of reprieve from the usual anxiety of it all, Dolores relaxes (as do we) and lets herself enjoy the comedy of it as well, and laughs, remarking along with it that he looks a fool.

Dolores Claiborne
Dolores Claiborne, 1995 © Castle Rock Entertainment

Knowing already what Joe is, this does not go over well and, well, he strikes back at her in a jarring way, which I won’t reveal, but it is a sudden and distressing display of domestic abuse that she absorbs with incredible dignity as best she can. What follows though is a turning point and the tables become turned and it’s made all the more powerful but the addition of a young Selena (played at this age by Ellen Muth) who comes downstairs in panic at the sounds. Watch what Dolores does and where and how she positions herself and what she is holding as she commits to a selfless act of sacrifice Selena can’t see and won’t understand until decades later. Great stuff.

THE TALLY: Dolores Claiborne is a taunt and often suspenseful thriller levied by terrific direction and outstanding performances. Awash in themes and open to interpretation, the film presses us to consider what kind of movie it actually is. While it is steeped in mystery and drama, what Dolores endures is clearly horrific and while there is rarely any physical horror on screen, mentally, it is quite the opposite, with the relationships Dolores survives some that could best only be described as monstrous. An often forgotten film of the 90s, this is a gem worth seeking, a film of great rewards despite its bleak premise. It’s what to watch.

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