BUY FROM AMAZON: CLICK HERE!
RATED Not Rated
RUNNING TIME 90 minutes
• Digital Copy
A revenge thriller from the twisted mind that brought you It and Pet Sematary and the network that brought you Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever.
Maria Bello, Will Harris, Olympia Dukakis, Joan Jett
Tess Throne, a famous writer, faces a long drive home following a book signing. On a lonely New England road, her tire blows out, leaving her stranded. Relieved when another driver stops and offers assistance, Tess quickly discovers her savior is actually a serial killer who assaults her. Left for dead, Tess escapes, determined to find her attacker and seek revenge.
I enjoy the works of Stephen King a great deal; I have a shelf full of hardcover versions of his books sitting directly behind me at this very moment. I also enjoy movies based on the works of Stephen King, even when they’re not particularly good (I will never turn down a chance to watch the unrestrained lunacy of Graveyard Shift and I unironically love The Mangler.) So it goes without saying that I was quite pleased to see a Stephen King movie pop up on the list of DVDs available for review and I snatched it up like a greedy fat kid at an unattended free-samples kiosk.
As I popped this disc in my player a strong foreboding feeling crept over me. The first preview was for a shitty made-for-TV sequel to Flowers in the Attic (actually a sequel to the shitty made-for-TV remake of that film, according to IMDb) followed by a shitty made-for-TV sequel to Walk the Line with Jewel playing June Carter Cash. “That looks like the kind of shit they’d put on the-” the words died on my lips as a horrific revelation dawned on me. I grabbed the box and flipped it over to the back, my eyes frantically searching in hopes that I was mistaken. I hissed like a vampire faced with a crucifix as I spied a logo in the bottom left corner: Lifetime.
I decided to give this movie a chance, because I had to or else my editor is going to fold his arms and shake his head in a very sternly disappointed way, so I began psyching myself up. I could do this. I’ve watched two seasons of The Following, I watched a 45 minute collection of badly-acted rape scenes, I watched Scott Adkins act! I am the champion, I am unbreakable, I could do this.
Even if this was a Lifetime movie, it was still based on a Stephen King story, and hey Richard Christian Matheson did the teleplay, so that’s promising as well. Even more of a good sign: Mick Garris’ name was nowhere near this movie. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
It was so bad. The opening is so disgustingly Lifetime-y that it made my kidneys hurt. We open on the main character (Mario Bello) Tess having a video-chat session with her next-door-neighbor, who is literally on the other side of the wall from her, as she gets things together to go to a book signing. It checks so many boxes: bad music, soft-lighting, yogurt commercial caliber portrayals of how women speak to each other. There’s also a lot of King Speak (Weird colloquialisms used by characters in Stephen King stories and likely nowhere else), it combines with the quirkiness to act like nails on the chalkboard of my soul.
Our main character, Tess Thorne, (played by Maria Bello of A History of Violence, the remake of Assault on Precinct 13, and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) is a novelist who writes cozy-crime stories, she goes to speak at a women’s book club and gets at tip on a shortcut home from the group’s leader. Somehow Tess fails to notice a giant pile of boards laying in the road and runs over them, puncturing her tire on a comically over-sized nail. She has a spare tire and a jack but apparently lacks the basic intuitive functions to figure out how to use them and is thus forced to beg help from passing motorists.
Soon, a truck pulls up and a large man (the titular Big Driver as played by Will Harris) arrives and offers to help her out. She sees some boards similar to the ones on the ground and though he has already offered a perfectly good reason why they should be there, she freaks out and asks him how much longer it’s going to be even though he has literally just crouched by the tire seconds ago and she can plainly see what is happening. Big Driver drops his veneer of kindness and beats her up and rapes her in an abandoned gas station behind her car, he then drags her into a creek where he drowns her and puts her into a culvert with the bodies of three other women.
Due to forethought, fortitude, or just dumb luck, Tess survives her drowning and promptly escapes the culvert. She goes home and mulls over calling the police, but realizing that her celebrity and the way society treats her gender in these situations will just make a mess of the whole affair, decides to take matters into her own hands and put a stop to Big Driver once and for all.
At this point the movie pulls a complete 180. The lighting becomes more nuanced, the music becomes more subdued, the acting becomes better, the dialogue markedly improves. It’s almost as if director Mikael Salomon set out to make the movie’s opening minutes deliberately awful to sell the rest of the movie better, but that can’t be true because that would be stupid and makes a certain aspect particularly uncomfortable (more on that in a moment.)
Big Driver is similar in tone and nature to a different Stephen King story about someone getting revenge that was adapted into a movie: Dolan’s Cadillac. It’s a revenge story that doesn’t busy itself with the morality of its plot; Tess fully realizes that what she’s doing is wrong, but it’s what she determines is best for herself and Big Driver’s other, less lucky, victims. Stephen King and Richard Christian Matheson know that that narrative road has been taken in numerous other stories over the years and there’s no point rehashing what has probably already been said much better, they focus instead on something you don’t often see in revenge movies that don’t feature “Punisher” in the title: competence.
Tess mentions early in the movie that she “hears voices” in her head that help her to write and it’s these auditory (and later, visual) manifestations of her subconscious which allow her to set a plan in motion. The voices manifest in several different ways, but the two main manifestations are Tom (the voice of her car’s GPS) and Doreen (the lead character of her novels played by Olympia Dukakis) who give the audience a peek into Tess’ psyche and brings forth some of that introspection that’s so often lost in translation from page to screen.
Maybe it’s due to lowered expectations or contrast with the truly terrible opening, but the last hour of this movie is rather enjoyable and shockingly well-done. The reason I dismissed the idea that the director would make the opening so chintzy to better sell the tonal shift above is that the worst part of the bad opening is where the tonal shift actually occurs.
The scene where Tess is attacked is just awful and a lot of that is due to Big Driver himself. Will Harris is a very capable actor but he looks like more of a loveable schlub than a powerful predator; I can see him being admonished by Leah Remini for eating the last piece of cake, not dominating a woman he’s about to murder. I’m sure his innocuous appearance is meant to take the audience off guard, but he just doesn’t have what it takes to sell the menacing aspects of the character.
The rape scene is, frankly, goofy as hell and that’s not a description that should ever apply to that sort of scene. Harris isn’t remotely scary and watching him grunt and hump the air six inches above Maria Bello as she unconvincingly feigns anguish is uncomfortable for all of the wrong reasons. I’m not expecting something on the level of I Spit on Your Grave here, but when it’s the traumatic centerpiece of your revenge story then it should actually be traumatic. Late-period Death Wish sequels had better set-ups than this.
While many may find the lack of any sort of moral message problematic or even see it as a sign of weak narrative, I do not. The toll that revenge takes on a person has been covered extensively and exhaustively by a a plethora of books, movies, comics, and games. An eye for an eye leave the whole world blind, stare not into the abyss lest is stare back, to fight with monsters, blah blah, we get it. That’s a perfectly legitimate message to a revenge story, but there are other approaches.
Big Driver isn’t about an eye for an eye, it’s about power. Tess is made to feel helpless and alone whenever Big Driver attacks her, the rest of the movie is about her regaining that power by returning the pain he gave her and by avenging the deaths of his other victims. It’s about ensuring that this moment of weakness will not define her and while that’s all sorts of dark-grey-approaching-black from a moral standpoint, it is a very understandable decision if not a condonable one.
The one big benefit of Lifetime making this movie is that it’s allowed to a story for and about women without being diluted by a shoe-horned-in male perspective as a studio movie would undoubtedly require. There are maybe five men in this movie that aren’t extras: the villain, a limo driver who offers to take Tess to the hospital, a character who dies before he even gets to speak a line, and Tess’ GPS. Every other role, no matter how incidental, is played by a woman. The bar owner who Tess goes to to get information on Big Driver? Played by Joan Jett. The police officer that wonders why she’s parked on a lonely stretch of highway in the middle of the night? Tara Nicodemo. This is the kind of thing that you would only notice just simply because most movies don’t do it, but the movie never quite has a “men are awful” feel to it, it’s a movie that manages to be about one gender without throwing the other under the bus and that’s something to be celebrated.
If you can stomach the first thirty minutes of Big Driver, there’s a solid little revenge thriller hidden on the other side that’s femme-centric without being exploitative or preachy and still manages to have something to say.
No special features to speak of except for some awful Lifetime movie trailers, but you do get an Ultraviolet copy of the movie if you’re into that sort of thing. The disc is presented in 16.9, 1.78:1 widescreen with 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio and features English subtitles .
Out of a Possible 5 Stars