“Let's not pretend we're at some Norman Rockwell family reunion,” snarls Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the prime mover of Dolores Claiborne. While Dolores (Kathy Bates) still refuses to acknowledge that her daughter's “bad patch” was a “fucking nervous breakdown,” and Selena takes 15 years to wake up and smell the coffee, this movie doesn't pretend to be anything but pure Misery-meets-Fried Green Tomatoes melodrama.
Stephen King made no bones about Dolores Claiborne's designs, beginning the bestselling book with a pop-psych call and response: “What does a woman want?” asks Sigmund Freud. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me,” answers Aretha Franklin. Likewise director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman), who jump-starts the film with a frenetic sequence that ends with Dolores towering above a bleeding body and an extreme closeup of a rolling pin rumbling toward the camera like a steam roller. Imagine Betty Crocker telling her abusive husband, “Do it again and one of us is going to the boneyard,” and you've got a good idea of where this Via Dolorosa is headed. Of course, there's always hell to pay when a woman sacrifices someone other than herself.
Dolores' home has stood empty in the years since her husband, Joe (David Straithairn), mysteriously disappeared “in the year of the eclipse” and young Selena went off to Vassar. With no one left to care for, Dolores became a live-in housekeeper for a shrewish socialite (Judy Parfitt) whose infirmity has barely blunted her tongue. But Dolores' crusty employer has taken a fatal fall, and now a dogged detective (Christopher Plummer) is also trying to nail her for Joe's unsolved murder. This specter from the past — a literal and figurative swallowing of the sun by the moon — threatens to overshadow the shiny future Dolores bought for Selena with a pound of flesh.
Ultimately, Dolores is more memorable for what it isn't than what it is — a domestic potboiler on slow burn. Despite the damned Yankee setting, it's not another Needful Things; hell doesn't just land on Dolores' doorstep — it unfolds “like a long line of wet winter sheets” that suck the youth from her touch and the warmth from her heart.
It's not Sleeping With the Enemy. Instead of a sanitized pretty woman in distress — with Jessica Lange and Julia Roberts as the mother and daughter whose psychic bruises never mess up their makeup — Dolores wears its battle scars on the faces of its stars: Bates looks as weatherbeaten as her hardened Maine accent sounds. Of course, it's not Once Were Warriors, either.
As Danny Elfman's brood music hovers off the coastline, it becomes clear that Dolores is just a fat Catwoman, only partly domesticated, and Selena a neurotic kitten with a chance to make something more of her single-white-female life. If family violence gets too much of a comic-book treatment, at least the Technicolor picture postcard of happy homemaker gets a kick in the ass as well. Dolores Claiborne serves up “three square meals of bitching,” embodied by mother, daughter and Vera, the fearless fairy godmother. “Sometimes,” as each of the angrrry women insists, “being a bitch is all a woman has to hang onto.” Especially a woman like Bates — or Leigh — whose backside doesn't neatly fit Hollywood's leading-lady mold.
Dolores Claiborne opens Fri, March 24, at the Galaxy in S.F. and other Bay Area theaters.