'Claiborne' haunts as 'mood-film'

By Doug Cummings

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Movies usually present flashbacks in surreal visual tones, black and white imagery, and echoey sounds, but "Dolores Claiborne," the new movie based on Stephen King's novel, presents the present with a ghostly aura and the past with a comforting warmth.

Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a young and successful, but dispirited, journalist who returns to her hometown in Maine because her estranged mother, Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) is accused of murder. The victim is Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt), an elderly lady whom Dolores tended for many years.

The detective in charge of the case, John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), is intent on charging Dolores because of his failure years before in establishing her guilt for the mysterious death of her husband, Joe (David Strathairn).

Dolores refuses legal counsel and when Selena arrives, disillusioned and drug-dependent, the two confront the present by remembering their troubled past.

The movie's complex construction juxtaposes different times in Dolores' life, from her abusive marriage and pivotal arguments with Selena, to her early years working for Vera. The different scenes develop her relationship with Vera and substantiate the bitterness that has risen between Dolores and Selena due to their family strife.

The movie is solidly directed by Taylor Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman") who presents the movie as a quasi-surreal collection of bitter characters and haunting settings. Frequently, he uses the nearby ocean and shots of the clouds as scenic transitions that create a world of empty serenity and hidden meanings.

Unfortunately, the film's supporting characters seem more like simplistic forces in the main characters' lives rather than well-rounded characters. David Strathairn ("The River Wild") plays Dolores' abusive husband without a shred of redeeming qualities. Joe is violent, drunken, vulgar and malicious to the point where his death is almost welcome. The movie would have been stronger if it weren't quite so intent on justifying Dolores' actions through easily classifiable roles.

However, Kathy Bates ("Fried Green Tomatoes") and Jennifer Jason Leigh ("Ms. Parker and the Viscious Circle") offer strong and subtly nuanced performances. Bates embodies the weary determination and bluntness that befits a woman having to fight her way through life. Leigh smoothly depicts Selena's bitterness through dour expressions and sarcastic indignation.

"Dolores Claiborne" is a mood piece that dramatizes how the past can enslave the present. While it is fairly heavy-handed, its consistent perspective, thick atmosphere, and engaging lead performances make it a laudable psychological thriller.

"Dolores Claiborne" is showing at Century Gateway, 792-9000.

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