The most remarkable thing about this new, very creepy, morality play based on yet another story by Stephen King is the sheer beauty of it. The visuals are stunning – small-town landscapes, endless cornfields, weathered skies, crimson barns, gabled, tumbledown houses. The sound of the thing is equally enthralling –by “sound,” I mean specifically the narration, which is the bulk of the script, hypnotically rendered by Thomas Jane, who also plays the lead character, Wilfred Leland James — a salt-of-the-earth-type farmer who openly plots wife-murder a few minutes in.
So mesmerizing is the combination of sight and sound that you never once even think of hiding your eyes (which I confess I sometimes do during scary movies), although there are plenty of visuals so gruesome that at times you’ll wish you had. That voice – at once bitter, lilting, resonant, lyrical – carries you effortlessly through the worst parts of the tale. As I often find myself saying when I review horror movies, this one’s a little creepier than I usually like them, but if I had it to watch it all over again (and I might, a third time), I wouldn’t change a thing. This is one slick Stephen King adaptation.
“This is a deeply moving story – a chain of events that cascades almost picturesquely from the first, gruesome sin to the trials of Job.”
The film opens with a woman’s whispers escaping from a well, a sound that becomes highly significant, issuing forth again in what is easily the high point of the tale – the most chilling, the most heart-rending, part of it. (Only the final scene can compete.) On second viewing, what strikes you with horror the first time will leave you sobbing the next. This is a deeply moving story – a chain of events that cascades almost picturesquely from the first, gruesome sin to the trials of Job. “If God rewards us for good deeds,” says James hopefully, early on, “then maybe Satan rewards us for evil ones.”
Maybe he does – maybe not – in this story. That this isn’t the only place in the narrative where the filmmaker toys with the idea of God’s existence is a plus – both dramatically and artistically – for the typically nihilistic vision of Stephen King. The despair and torment of most of the action are beautifully balanced by the words of Christ in John 14:2-3: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, I would have told you.”
These words are recited by a preacher, spanning two scenes of two separate funerals. In the second, Wilfred James, sitting in an otherwise empty church in the first pew, slowly turns to confront unspeakable horror behind him. It is simply superbly done.
The legendary Stephen King is so prolific that his work is necessarily uneven — sometimes strong, sometimes weak – and the same can be said about film adaptations of his stories. But I have to say, in all honesty, this production strikes me as the best I’ve ever seen. Carrie and Misery are my favorites – I confess to never having cared much for The Shining – and I’m hard-pressed to say that either of those movies outrank this one in sheer artistry alone.
I’m not prepared to say it’s scarier than those others – although it’s terrifying enough that the question in my mind becomes moot. At what point do gradations of horror yield diminishing returns? It’s just a matter I feel I have to comment on, given what people usually expect from Stephen King, or from horror movies in general. This thing is plenty creepy, and simply awesome, is all I can say. Netflix should always do so well.