With all of the features and TV series being picked out of Stephen King’s mountainous bibliography, one could easily forget how he used to be the king of the miniseries and TV movie. (Pun intended.) Lifetime, a network slowly building its “we don’t just show women getting beaten up” credentials, has somewhat antithetically delivered the epitome of Woman in Distress movies with Big Driver, an adaptation of King’s Full Dark No Stars novella. But this isn’t some campy schlock with some 1980s sitcom actress phoning it in; this is full metal Maria Bello delivering one of the most uncomfortably sincere performances of her career.
Full Dark No Stars is a very bleak and violent book, and Big Driver is the dark and dreary revenge tale in the bunch. Bello plays Tess, the bestselling author of a mystery novel series. She’s the kind of person who handles situations by thinking them aloud as if she’s writing the plot, and she’ll often visualize one of her main characters, Doreen (Olympia Dukakis), appearing places to give her advice. Tess has a book reading set up at a bookstore, where Ann Dowd’s Ramona is working.
On her way home, Tess uses a shortcut given to her at the reading and soon finds herself dealing with a nail in her tire. When a big burly man stops to help her, she is at first relieved. And then this man, played by Will Harris, turns an evil leaf and sexually abuses her repeatedly. To be clear, no rape scene in any movie is an objectively comfortable experience, but Big Driver stands atop a mountain of sadistic distress. This is the kind of scene that makes one wonder how comedic use of foul language is looked down upon on most TV networks, yet a ghastly full-on rape can happen, no problem.
That’s not a knock against either writer Richard Christian Matheson or director Mikael Salomon. The attack, which ends with Tess being left for dead, needs to reach a maximum level of awfulness to drive the wounded author’s actions for the rest of the movie. She doesn’t want the world to know what happened, to have the incident to redefine who she is in the public eye. And so she looks internally for her answer, which is basically, “Don’t get caught.”
The quality of Stephen King adaptations, more than any other author’s, is astoundingly hard to predict, with some turning out as timeless as Stand by Me and The Shining, while others are just limp by-the-numbers flicks like Secret Window and Bag of Bones. Thankfully, Big Driver fits in the former camp, with Maria Bello bearing the brunt of this story on her bruised shoulders. Not a movie where you’re meant to keep guessing who the “killer” is, this is one where every road leads to palpable dread.
Because most of Big Driver feels genuinely terrifying for its main character, the movie itself is paced to keep audiences feeling equally lousy about everything. (But in the best possible way, I think.) I can’t fault it for many things, surprising considering it’s a Lifetime Original, but there is a tonal imbalance that feels off but admittedly just might add to the weirdness. Almost everything that occurs is extremely depressing in some way; whereas a dumb movie might bide its time by having Tess engage in needless conversations with characters who don’t matter, Big Driver readily slows things down so that audiences can watch Tess break down after seeing herself in a mirror for the first time after her attack. After already having witnessed the rape, we hear her confess all of the details to a voicemail recording, and then we get to hear that message played out almost in its entirety later in the movie. Nearly every scene is like that, a constant reminder of the angsty despair.
Still, there are moments of unexpected levity, such as Tess’ conversations with Tom, her GPS. The first time Tom says something un-GPS-ish, it’s almost frightening, but we later understand that this, like Doreen, is another way for Tess to mentally organize herself. It’s a nice non-clumsy way of dishing out exposition and narrative without just making Tess talking to herself all the time. Plus, Dukakis is a vicious old queen.
King’s longest works will often make for the most distracted adaptations, but the tightness of Big Driver is perfect for Lifetime. It’s a powerful film – not because its story of a vengeful female will shine a light on social injustices, but simply because it grips viewers and doesn’t let go until the credits are rolling. Maria Bello is a pain-stricken wonder.
Big Driver debuts on Lifetime on Saturday, October 18.