January 27, 2015
Richard Christian Matheson
Based on a story by Stephen King
Maria Bello as Tess
Ann Dowd as Ramona
Olympia Dukakis as Doreen
Joan Jett as Betsy
Let’s throw it all out on the table, shall we? Based on all of the large billboards in LA proclaiming the release of last year’s Big Driver, my hopes for greatness (or even slight intrigue to see the piece) were dashed when I saw that it was a Lifetime movie. Now, I had never read this story (by Stephen King), knew nothing about the plot or characters, so frankly it was only the Lifetime logo which held me at an arm’s length – that and the presence of Maria Bello, whom I so greatly disliked in the vastly over-rated Prisoners from 2013. Needless to say, this was not to be found anywhere in the vicinity of my must-see radar.
Until magically, a screener appeared in my mailbox, and voila! I was instantly interested.
Despite my hesitation to see the film, I can say with solid confidence that the days of Meredith Baxter-Birney and Nancy McKeon movies of the week – are long gone. One of my close college chums and I used to make up terrible Lifetime movie titles. Among our best was “Hey, You’re That Bitch Who Stole My Baby: The Susan Walltower Story”. Exactly.
But I gotta say, I’m impressed with Big Driver. It’s a solid effort.
Tess Thorne (Bello) is a well-respected and successful mystery writer. Her long-running series of books about a bunch of old ladies knitting and solving complex murders, keeps her busy and attending book readings and events to meet the fans, listen to their babbling and collect a few extra paychecks. Well, her latest one is in a small town in Maine (a Stephen King story set in Maine? Now I’ve heard everything!), which is a bit of a driving trek for her. However, she is given a “shortcut” suggestion for the drive home, by the head of the ladies club where she did the reading; Ramona Norvell (Ann Dowd). But a sea of boards (complete with nails) in the middle of the road, flattens one of her tires and leaves her stranded, before a Good Samaritan (the towering Will Harris – we later learn his character is named “Big Driver” – hence the title) stops to help out. Thing is, he’s not a good guy – at all.
Things quickly get violent and graphic. But Tess survives and rather than contact the authorities (this was not a terribly clear or believable choice by the character), she calms herself, cleans herself and takes matters into her own hands. We’re given the Lifetime version of I Spit on Your Grave and any other rape/revenge tales you can think of – greatly edited.
What’s wonderfully different here, is that Tess has one heck of an imagination. She has listened to the voices in her head all of her life, some of whom became her great literary characters – namely “Doreen” – played by Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis. Always a calm, charming and sometimes sarcastic “angel” on Tess’ shoulder, Dukakis offers some great comic relief, as Tess moves full speed ahead into her vengeance. It’s a nice thought to know that Doreen (as well as “Tom” – Tess’ other voice of reason/GPS navigator) keep her level enough to not make any mistakes when committing her crimes. And they are still crimes, no matter how deserved the end result may be.
I will fully admit – Maria Bello grew on me. I had my misgivings going in (see above), but she worked her magic and by the end, she had endeared Tess to me. Her quirks (talking to her fictional characters and her GPS) and her raw determination made me root for her.
But it was the supporting players who made this viewing a treat. Joan Jett has only one scene, but she was pretty damn good! I’ve never seen her act before (which is shocking in and of itself since I’m an 80s movie whore and have never seen Light of Day – go figure). She’s got real personality and presence. One of the big shockers of the viewing! Go Joan Jett!
But imagine my high-pitched squeal when I found out that the amazing Ann Dowd was in the cast. Do you know who this woman is? If not, forty lashes upon thee. I first laid eyes on her in the 2012 indie gem Compliance. She’s had a prolific career, and I feel ashamed that it’s taken me this long to discover her. If you haven’t been watching HBO’s The Leftovers, I implore you to do so. Do it for all of the wonderful things contained in the series, but then shhhh, do it for real just to watch Ann Dowd. This woman is one of the best actresses on the scene right now. Get to know her name and get to know her work. Sadly, she’s not given much screen time here, but what she gets, she uses. And I don’t want to offer spoilers (for Big Driver or for The Leftovers) – but based on the many times this unwritten thing has happened to her onscreen, I’d just throw it out there that as an actress, she is the best at it. Vague enough for you?
The film’s pretty brutal (especially shocking for a Lifetime flick) and the opening scenes are extremely unpleasant. But like most human beings, the payoff sort of makes it okay for me. We’re vengeful creatures. And what’s more, if we don’t get personal vengeance, it’s nice to know that justice can be served – even if this particular “eye for an eye” scenario is only on our television screen.
Nothing life-altering or something that will shock you to your very core, but I do highly recommendBig Driver. I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed it! It’s suspenseful and fast-paced, witty (that dialogue between Tess and Doreen!), sleek and compact, and has some talented heavy hitters on the cast roster.
Lifetime’s come a long way since I used to (in spite of myself) get caught up in the latest disease movies of the week starring Donna Mills and Christina Pickles (that ones for you, RNH!). Check this out, and you’ll agree.