DOLORES CLAIBORNE (1995) – The Dungeon Review!
There are not nearly enough films out there that feature strong roles for women. I had no idea Stephen King wrote a book with such a solid female protagonist. Despite the fact this is based on a novel by Stephen King this is not a horror film but rather a mystery drama with a dash of thriller. To say Dolores is one tough woman is an understatement. The woman’s life is a hell. I certainly didn’t appreciate this film in my 20s like I do today. Dolores Claiborne is a heart wrenching, bleak and ugly film that left me with a feeling of complete admiration for the titular woman. “Sometimes, an accident can be an unhappy woman’s best friend“.
Dolores Claiborne opens with a scene where we see or rather hear a struggle at the top of a staircase. We later learn the two women are Dolores and her employer Vera Donovan. Vera Donovan takes a bad fall down the stairs. Her frail elderly frame lay at the bottom of the staircase as Dolores rushes down to see the woman is still conscience. Dolores runs to the kitchen rifles through some drawers and settles on a rolling pin. She hurries back to Vera and readies herself to finish the woman off when the postman walks in. Dolores freezes with rolling pin raised above her head. Vera in fact died before Dolores had a chance to strike her blow. The next scene we are taken to a New York office where we meet Selena St. George; a reporter trying to convince her boss to give her a hot story. She receives a fax with a single sentence “Isn’t this your mother?” with a copy of a story from a Bangor newspaper. Dolores has been accused of causing Vera Donovan’s death. Selena makes her first trip home in fifteen years. When Selena arrives in the tiny town she meets Detective John Mackey who is working on her mother’s case. Mackey remembers Selena from when she was a teen and he was investigating Dolores for the death of her husband Joe. Selena seems to have no recollection of Mackey. The balance of the film is Dolores relaying her history and we learn the circumstances that led to both her husband’s and Vera Donovan’s deaths.
Dolores is a hard woman with a bad reputation around town of being difficult. Many of the townsfolk believe she was guilty of her husband’s death and in a small town the word travelled fast about the strange scene surrounding Vera Donovan’s death. This is the woman we meet when the film begins, but the woman that is shown to us in flashbacks is a very different woman indeed. It is amazing what some people are forced to endure. Did Dolores ever have joy in her life? Does she feel her many sacrifices have been redeemed by her daughter’s achievements? The scrapbook Dolores keeps with every article Selena wrote tells me yes. But how could she not feel a little cheated about a daughter who has stayed away fifteen years believing her mom was some battleaxe that made her father’s life a living hell?
As an adult Selena lives in a haze of prescription drugs, chain-smoking, excessive drinking and failed relationships. Selena has buried her past deep inside her. Despite her successful career as a journalist Selena is a bitter, acidic and troubled young woman. As Dolores is relaying the events that occurred during Selena’s childhood it is like a slap in the face to Selena. Selena is not easy to empathize with but by the end of the film she is considerably softened by the revelations.
It is very difficult to relay Dolores Claiborne’s best scenes as they are key plot points that would give too much away. There are several poignant moments in the film and several of those involve Dolores’ interaction with her husband Joe. Joe St. George is a drunken creep of a husband who mentally and physically abuses his wife. One evening he whacks her in the back with a 2 x 4 and she does her best to hide the incident and the unbearable pain she is in from her daughter. Later that evening after Selena has gone to bed, Dolores surprises Joe with a strike to his head. When Joe makes a move to come after Dolores she threatens him with an axe. She than drops the axe in his lap and gets right in his face daring him to finish her off once and for all. She tells him he will never hit her again or else one of the two of them is going to the boneyard. Of course the insults continue as does the drinking but the ugly man does not raise his hand to her. Why does she stay married to Joe? Till death do us part I guess but what a fucking concept that is. It is not long afterwards that Dolores takes a job as a housekeeper for Vera Donovan. A job she takes to start a bank account for Selena so her daughter is not trapped in the tiny town like she is. The job keeps Dolores out of the house, but unfortunately also leaves her daughter alone with her drunkard husband which inevitably becomes problematic.
Kathy Bates is extraordinary as Dolores Claiborne. A hard as nails woman with a beautiful heart that becomes an embittered woman who is forced to defend her actions and refuses to do so even though it may mean her life. She refuses to be intimidated and is rarely shaken. She has hands that tell a 1000 stories. I really can’t imagine anyone else in the role; Bates is beyond perfect. Judy Parfitt has a fairly small but immensely important role as Vera Donovan. Vera Donovan is a demanding woman who is exceedingly difficult to work with. She has a million fussy little eccentricities that have caused many a housekeeper to run from her home in tears; at least the ones she doesn’t fire. Parfitt is quite unforgettable as Vera. Jennifer Jason Leigh as the bitter and unhappy daughter who has buried her past deep within does not have an easy role but pulls it off effortlessly. Christopher Plummer is a son of a bitch with a major bone to pick with Dolores. He always believed that Dolores killed her husband Joe and considers her not guilty verdict to be a failure on his part. He is gunning to see her go down and relentlessly pursues a guilty verdict on the death of Vera Donovan. David Strathairn plays Joe St. George the deplorable, hateful and hideous husband. He is excellent in the unpleasant and unenviable role. John C. Reilly also has a small role as a constable assisting Detective Mackey. The cinematography is lovely. A key scene that takes place during a solar eclipse is truly haunting and beautifully captured (it is also very satisfying!). Danny Elfman’s score works quite well at complimenting the daunting moments. Dolores Claiborne is sad, beautiful, ugly and powerful. Highly recommended.
Dungeon Rating: 4.5/5
Directed By: Taylor Hackford
Starring: Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judy Parfitt, Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn, Eric Bogosian, John C. Reilly, Ellen Muth, Bob Gunton