Although it is not what his stories are known for, rape occurs frequently in the work of Stephen King — often in long, graphically detailed and brutal scenes. King is a master of horror, so this is not surprising — rape is horrific, and all sorts of graphic violence occur in his tales.
But only one, a novella called "Big Driver" from King's 2010 "Full Dark, No Stars," deals exclusively with rape, including a grim and vengeful fantasy of its aftermath.
Now, with sexual assault sparking protests in the military, on college campuses and more recently among the gaming community, Lifetime on Saturday premieres a film version of "Big Driver." Adapted by Richard Christian Matheson, directed by Mikael Salomon and starring Maria Bello, Olympia Dukakis and Joan Jett, it has been marketed with all the fervor that a marriage between Stephen King and Lifetime would seem to demand.
If only it weren't such a disturbingly retro and sadistically sensationalized take on the subject. If only it were any good at all.
The story is simple, manipulative and ghastly. Tess (Bello), the author of a mystery series that involves elderly women who knit, travels to a small New England town to deliver a talk at the local library. For the return trip, the librarian (Ann Dowd) offers Tess a shortcut through the middle of nowhere during which Tess runs over some debris in the road and gets a flat.
A big guy in a truck seemingly stops to help but instead beats, rapes, sodomizes and attempts to murder her in scenes that last an unforgivably long time. Then he dumps what he thinks is her body in a culvert alongside several other corpses of women who have, apparently, met a similar fate.
But Tess is still alive and slowly makes her way to safety, where absolutely no one offers help of any kind, despite the god-awful brutalized state of her. This conveniently allows Tess to tell no one what has happened, since she has decided that should she go to the police, people would say she was "asking for it" and her career would be over.
So, counseled by one of her characters (Dukakis) and the voice of her navigation system, she takes matters into her own hands.
I appreciate King's (very macho) desire to amp up the Take Back the Night concept with a "feminist" vigilante ("Full Dark, No Stars" is all about retribution) and even his rather tin-eared exploration of the fear of social censure surrounding rape.
But this story is so nonsensical that it, at best, exploits its subject matter and, at worst, insults it.
Very little time is spent introducing Tess, but obviously she's an educated, intelligent well known writer. So even allowing for her extremely traumatic experience, it is impossible to imagine her thinking she would be "blamed" for a sexual attack, especially one so vicious and physically injurious. If nothing else, her DNA is all over the ramshackle gas station where the crime took place and there's a freaking culvert full of dead women nearby.
But King can't be bothered coming up with a real reason for his heroine to decide to get a gun and do it herself, though he does add a knowing chat with a bartender (Jett) who has abuse issues of her own. "Women get knocked around a lot," this character observes sagely.
So now Tess is fighting back not just for herself but for women every where, which is supposed to lend integrity and perhaps a vicarious thrill to watching her kill her assailant (guess where she shoots him?) and his accomplices in a variety of bloody ways.
Bello does the very best she can with criminally limited material, as does Dukakis, Dowd and even Jett. (The men are not supposed to do anything but be backwoods animals in the tradition of "Deliverance.") But there's nothing here to work with beyond rape and murder, which the camera lingers on too long and loves too well.
And that doesn't help at all.