Dolores Claiborne
directed by Taylor Hackford
(Columbia, 1995)

The camera pans from the stiller-than-death face of a nameless body of water up a grassy hill to the august estate of Vera Donovan. Voices are raised, the camera moves into the foyer, Donovan's body tumbles down the stairs. A moment later Dolores Claiborne is standing over her boss's body with a rolling pin. She lifts it high in the air, takes aim and gets interrupted in mid-stroke by the mailman.

Anywhere else it would be an open-and-shut case of murder, spelled with a capital "H." But you're not anywhere else. You're in Stephen King Country.

Master of horror Stephen King has mastered a number of genres in the last 20 years. Of these, my favorite is the "There's a hideous little secret in a little town in Maine" genre. It's a category that's given us everything from Pet Sematary to The Shawshank Redemption. And now, Dolores Claiborne.

Not all of King's stories translate well to the big screen. (If you're stuck for an example, try Lawnmower Man.) But all of them guarantee you one thing: a long, strange trip. Claiborne is no exception.

For while we can't be sure Dolores (Kathy Bates) has a future, it's clear she has a past. And it's known to Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer) of the Maine State Police, who's in town to look into Vera Donovan's death.

Mackey, it seems, had been sent to this same town 18 years earlier to investigate another suspicious death -- that of Claiborne's husband, Joe St. George, who may have been an average Joe but was certainly no saint.

Joe had fallen down an abandoned well during a total solar eclipse -- or was he pushed? Mackey favors the latter, but he couldn't prove it. Now, karma being what it is, he has a second chance to send Claiborne to jail. It's an opportunity he can't resist.

But Claiborne couldn't care less about going to jail. The only judgment that concerns her is that of her estranged daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who left the little town in Maine 15 years earlier. For in the world of dirty little secrets, Selena is what's known as a carrier. The only problem is, she doesn't know she's carrying one.

Neither does the viewer, of course, until director Taylor Hackford and his talented cast peel away the layers of the past one sliver at a time. It's a mesmerizing strip tease, photographed in a blue haze and haunted by any number of ghosts -- memories that come alive at the sound of a phone ringing or the sight of a Scotch bottle.

Dolores Claiborne is a film that works on several levels: it's a mystery, a murder mystery, a ghost story, a fantasy, a film noir and a story of a woman's search for redemption. Rarely is it subtle, and rarely is it comforting. There's no Columbo here, though at times Bates is gut-bustingly funny.

The important thing is that on all its levels, Claiborne works, and works well.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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