Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Stephen King’s Big Driver, On Lifetime, for Real

In publishing, the term “cozy” describes mysteries in the Miss Marple tradition. It is often used derisively as short hand for old lady books, until the author hits the bestseller list, at which point they become divas and we kiss up to them. Tess Thorne is not there yet, but she was getting close. Unfortunately, a violent attack will interrupt her well planned life in Lifetime’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella Big Driver (promo here), which premieres this Friday on the cable network.

“Self-promoter” is a term we also use for authors who are compulsively willing to drive off to an event where they might sell a few copies. Thorne assumes her latest library speaking engagement will be that sort of gig. She does fine with her fans, but she runs into terrible trouble when Ramona Norville, the programming librarian, suspiciously punches a so-called shortcut into her GPS. Instead, she takes a detour into Hell when some jagged road debris punctures her tire. At first, she thinks the man she will eventually know as “Big Driver” is a Good Samaritan, but he turns out to be a homicidal sexual predator.

Let’s be upfront and frank about this. The sexual assault Thorne endures is far more graphic and intense than anything you would expect from anything on commercial cable, especially Lifetime, for crying out loud. It will be a deal-breaker for many people, so be forewarned. On the other hand, it certainly establishes the stakes and lays the dramatic framework for the somewhat dissociative state in which Thorne plans her vengeance.

Left for dead by her tormentor, Thorne never considers reporting Big Driver to the police for a number of mostly rational reasons (sadly). Instead, she tracks down her assailant employing her mystery writer’s deductive reasoning and attention to detail. She will do this alone, but her subconscious will offer commentary in the guise of Doreen, the leader of her novel’s crime-solving knitting circle and her GPS (this works a lot better than it sounds).

So yes, Big Driver is dark, but it is also intense. Screenwriter Richard Christian Matheson (the son of the legendary Richard Matheson, who has adapted King for television before) really gets into the dark corners of the human psyche, combining elements of the psycho horror movie and the Death Wish thriller. Director Mikael Salomon (the cinematographer on Backdraft and The Abyss) maintains an atmosphere of dread and moral ambiguity that ought to meet with the author’s approval. Frankly though, he might push things too far in the first act.

Maria Bello gives a brave performance in Thorne’s victimization scenes and is also impressively fierce during the subsequent payback sequences. As Norville, Compliance’s Ann Dowd continues to make a name for herself as the go-to creepy late middle-aged lady. Joan Jett also adds some attitude as Betsy Neal, a bartender who helps Thorne pick up Big Driver’s trail.

Big Driver is the second novella from King’s Full Dark, No Stars collection to get a dramatic treatment this month, closely following Peter Askin’s Stephen King’s A Good Marriage. That’s half the book. So far, so good. Thanks to the contributions of Salomon, Matheson, and Bello (and King too, by extension), Big Driver is a taut, provocative telefilm, but it might be too much for the Netowork’s regular viewers. Recommended for King fans, Big Driver airs this Saturday (10/18) on Lifetime.