A Good Marriage Dir. Peter Askin

[Reno Productions; 2014]

Styles: horror, thriller, crime drama
Others: Double Jeopardy, Sleeping With The Enemy, Consenting Adults, Arlington Rd.

Sure he’s pop as all hell, and judging by his Entertainment Weekly columns, a bit of a wannabe rebel (it’s kinda cute, really), but Stephen King’s novels are jam packed with the subversive. They get at human vulnerability in ways that are so psychologically relentless as to make us imperceptibly sink with the recognition that nothing is stable. In much of the author’s work, there is a shrewd attention to the nuances of trauma that genre films rarely touch. Frequently, the filmic adaptations of his work dumb down or all but miss these nuances altogether, stressing the gory mayhem. Yet, as a subplot in Pet Sematary involving the repressed memory of a sister deteriorating from spinal meningitis shows, the emotional turmoil is so potently articulated as to make it more horrifying of a scene than a horde of zombified creatures could ever be. In other words, the best parts of Stephen King adaptations are almost always the best parts of the book (we’ll just leave The Shining out of this).

As it happens, the anthology (Full Dark, No Stars) that the story “A Good Marriage” is taken from is a somewhat different kettle of fish. There are little to no supernatural elements or occurrences of levity to provide the reader with a buffer against the bleak emotional carnage that is exhaustively explored. It is this quality that made me raise an eyebrow when I saw that the BTK-inspired “A Good Marriage” was being adapted. They’ll be adapting and re-adapting the horror maven’s works long after he’s gone, so I shouldn’t be surprised by the deep cut* getting produced. It was encouraging to see that the always solid Joan Allen was involved. As it turns out, though, the star comes off flat as a pancake. You can see her trying and it’s a drag. And while LaPaglia has his moments, he comes off a bit stilted a lot of the time himself. I can’t decide if this is miscasting or poor direction — though there’s plenty of the latter to be found here (the staging reliably vacillates from awkward to underwhelming and back again). A Good Marriage still has the germ of King’s taut, propulsive yarn, but it seems to be lacking any interesting ideas of it’s own.

The story concerns a wife that discovers a terrible secret about her husband, and must decide whether she can trust that he’ll change his ways, while making peace with his crimes, or expose him and scandalize her children who’ve just begun to start their own lives. The crux of the story’s inspiration, according to the acknowledgements in Full Dark, is an answer to people’s bafflement over how the BTK wife could’ve lived with the man for years and not have suspected anything. King recognized the grist there. A marriage partner is an unwitting accomplice to everything they are (and it’s worth noting, as Pet Sematary repeatedly pointed out, “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier”). It’s possible that if we all sat down, took some sodium pentothal and had full disclosure sessions, considerably less people would get, let alone stay, married to each other. Denial is a powerful coping mechanism, and this story tries to show people how entrenched a well-honed facade can become. Part of a successful, healthy marriage and family seems to be seeing what you wanna see and leaving no space for doubt.

King goes to great lengths (for a short story) to show this entrenchedness. It’s important that every hokey detail of their household routine rings true. In the film, the cracks in the firmament are way too apparent, even when the family is horsing around on the yard in an ad-libby fashion (with a really strange moment of the son strangely ducking down out of frame like he’s doing the ol’ fake elevator behind the couch routine). They make these warm, time-crystallized moments of domestic contentedness gleam cheap like the first fifteen minutes of a Death Wish movie. When Darcy (Allen) makes her discovery, it’s been so foreshadowed as to render the shock of it basically moot. Then it’s just down to her crisis with her secret-psycho hubby, Bob (Lapaglia). Their tense interactions crackle in the book (mostly due to Darcy’s unspoken reactions to her husband’s flatly maniacal rationalizations) whereas the film just rips through them with butt-numbing efficiency. This isn’t just another simple case of “the book’s better” or unadaptability, but a completely wasted opportunity to tap into a more character-driven side of King that many of the adaptations miss.

While I’m generally not an advocate of voice-over in films, there have been some that have found a way to make it fresh (The Big Lebowski, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Jesus’ Son). Along with a better cast Darcy and Bob, I think it could’ve helped tremendously with this story. It’s about one interior life glimpsing another vastly more convoluted one in a place of security that becomes as stifling as it once was swaddling. That’s where the horror is, that’s where the drama is and that’s where the final catharsis should come from. Instead, we have a tawdry slog that would fit the ranks of b-movie junk like The Stepfather if only it was any fun. Watching Joan Allen blurt out tepid gallows humor in a half-hearted femme fatale fashion is no fun. Here’s hoping that the actress gives us another Ice Storm-caliber turn before she retires and that somebody can once again convert some of that queasy Stephen King magic to its proper cinematic proportions. There is no genre more in need of a proper shot in the arm.

*See! I can be a cool music metaphor-slingin’ dude too, SK!

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