“You know you’re no longer at the cutting edge of horror when the Lifetime network starts adapting your stories” would be a facetious way to start a review of Big Driver, Lifetime’s TV movie adaptation of the novella from Stephen King’s 2010 collection “Full Dark, No Stars”. In fact, the TV network aimed at women would have been an ideal home for a number of female-oriented Stephen King adaptations, from Rose Madder to Rose Red, via Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game.
Billed as “a Lifetime television event”, Big Driver is the story of mystery novelist Tess Thorne (A History of Violence’s Maria Bello), creator of a series of books about crime-solving wrinklies ‘The Willow Grove Knitting Circle’ popular with the blue rinse set, who is returning from a book signing when her Prius blows a tyre on a deserted country road. No sooner has she figured that the blowout was deliberate – planks with nails have been laid in the road, Wrong Turn style – than a passer-by in a pickup truck pulls over, offering to help. What happens next is that the driver (Will Thomas), a jolly hillbilly so huge he makes The Green Mile’s John Coffey look underfed, knocks Tess unconscious, drags her into a disused building and brutally rapes her, multiple times, leaving her for dead in a gigantic water pipe. But Tess doesn’t die; she wakes to find herself dumped among the bodies of the pickup truck driver’s other presumed victims, who were not so ‘lucky’. Instead of doing the smart thing and telling the police (something about wanting to avoid a scandal that might affect her book sales), Tess takes matters into her own hands, using her mystery-writer wiles to discover the identity of her assailant – and the gun she keeps for peace of mind to give the sorry son of a bitch a big ol’ piece of payback.
So far, so pedestrian, right? What I haven’t mentioned so far is that Tess is a bit of a crackpot herself: not only does she talk back to her cat, Fritz, and her satnav, ‘Tom’ (presumably short for TomTom), she also has imaginary conversations with Doreen Marquis (the ageless Olympia Dukakis), the fictional heroine of the Willow Grove Knitting Circle. Whether or not these character traits are to illustrate that Tess has a teeny-tiny screw loose before she decides to go all Charles Bronson on her attacker, they’re entertaining in a barmy kind of way, giving the story an oddly goofy quality that should be out of place in a story about rape, murder and revenge. But thanks to a committed, Emmy-worthy performance by Maria Bello, Big Driver is worth following even when the script (by Richard Christian Matheson, son of Richard Matheson, one of King’s biggest influences) takes a wrong turn. Sadly, there are quite a few of these along the way, mostly to do with Tess’s mystery-solving capabilities, such as when she puts together a conspiracy theory so daft it would have Flat Earthers howling in disbelief. This would be interesting if the idea was that a writer with a knack for devious plotting might over-think her detective work; it’s quite another when a crackpot conspiracy theory turns out to be true.
That said, no one has claimed that King, Matheson Jr. or Danish director Mikael Salomon (the 2012 Coma miniseries) set out to make a 21st century update of The Accused, or a prime time television take on I Spit On Your Grave: after all, how could you take a film seriously when its marketing materials boast ‘Golden Globe Nominee Maria Bello’, ‘Academy Award Winner Olympia Dukakis’ and ‘Grammy Nominee Joan Jett’? Big Driver’s daftness is part of its charm, and if you can get on board with that, you might very well enjoy the ride.