“Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto.”– said with slight variations by Dolores, Selena and Vera.
Dolores Claiborne is Taylor Hackford’s faithful adaptation of a Stephen King novel about a woman who may have murdered her husband and gotten away with it. That summary hardly touches this complex story, though.
This is one of the few perfect movies to show to someone who wonders why women stay in abusive relationships or why women don’t stand up to their abusers, or who assumes there’s always a lawful solution to dealing with abuse.
This is a story about what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world: a world that is literally owned and designed by and for men. Throughout the story, Dolores is advised to keep her voice down, to stop smarting off to the men in charge, to control her temper. The irony is that perhaps if anyone had ever said anything like that to her husband, none of this would have happened.
This post is the first installment in a series on what I consider to be the best motion picture ever made. The more I analyze it, the more I find to talk about, like one of those nested Russian matryoshka dolls, the outer figure resembling Dolores, the final inner figure representing her daughter, Selena. In order to dig down from Dolores’ story to Selena’s, I have to begin with a chronological synopsis of the events below the More tag.
Spoilers follow. Triggers: mentions of domestic abuse and child molestation.
(Setting: the 1970s in a small isolated town island off the coast of Maine. This all happens over the course of a year or so.)
- Dolores is married to Joe St. George. Their daughter, Selena, is about thirteen.
- Joe is a “drunk”. He verbally abuses Dolores when Selena’s not around to hear it. Dolores tolerates this not because she’s weak, but because she’s too strong for it to bother her. What I call abuse Dolores would have seen as simple marital discord, and in the 70s, most people believed you kept the kids ignorant of problems and maintained the illusion of a stable home life. It works: Selena adores her father and seems to be happy.
- One day, Joe finally hits Dolores in one of the most powerful scenes of domestic abuse on film*. Once she recovers from the blow, she hits him back and threatens him with an axe. He’s completely cowed and never hits her again.
- During this time, Dolores is housekeeping for a rich, demanding, difficult “bitch”: Vera Donovan. Dolores puts all her wages into a savings account for Selena’s college – one Joe cannot legally touch, since he would just spend it all on booze and poker. It’s around this time Vera’s husband dies and she inherits all his money.
- Selena’s grades slip; she stops washing her hair and dressing well. Dolores thinks it’s drugs until she realizes Joe is molesting Selena.
- Dolores goes to cash out Selena’s college account ($3,000) so they can run away from Joe. But the bank manager has casually broken the law to give Joe the money after Joe fed him a lie about having lost the passbook. Dolores points out that if it had been Joe’s name on the account and Dolores “telling a fairy story”, the man would have called Joe to confirm – but because she’s a woman she doesn’t get the same consideration. Guilt-tripped, the bank manager gives Dolores back what’s left of the money, which Joe had put into another account.
- Dolores breaks down at work on the day of the eclipse for which Vera’s throwing a big party. Vera is curious to know what could make a strong woman like Dolores cry. Once she hears the story, she asks Dolores where she thinks $3,000 would take them that Joe couldn’t easily find them. “It’s a depressingly masculine world,” she says, but “husbands die every day.” She intimates that she caused her husband’s fatal car accident in retribution for his continuous infidelities and complete lack of love for her.
- In Technicolor subtext, Vera gives Dolores the rest of the day off to “enjoy the eclipse” with Joe. Dolores goes home to Joe, makes nice, gets him drunk, then pisses him off. He chases her through the yard, trying to strangle her. She leads him to an old well, boarded over with wood she recently noticed is rotting through. She leaps the boards, but Joe falls through them to his death.**
- Detective Mackey is certain Dolores killed her husband, but can’t prove it. Joe’s death is ruled misadventure.
- Soon after, Selena has what she calls a “nervous breakdown” and Dolores calls a “bad patch”. Details are sketchy, but it’s clear Selena needed help that Dolores didn’t know how to provide or attain for her.
- Selena eventually grows up, gets a scholarship to Vassar and becomes a successful New York investigative journalist. Unfortunately, she’s blocked the memories of her molestation and patched together a personal history some part of her mind knows is a lie, and this has taken its toll on her psychologically.
- Eighteen years after Joe’s death, Dolores is (wrongly) accused of killing Vera, who’s now an elderly and incapacitated woman Dolores looks after 24/7, 365 days a year. Mackey shows up again, determined to convict Dolores this time. He faxes Selena anonymously, and she shows up to half-heartedly help her mother.
- Gradually, Selena learns the truth about her father’s death. She doesn’t believe her father molested her until she’s on the ferry, leaving the island, and suddenly independently recalls an incident in which, despite her frantic protests, he aggressively cajoles her into touching his penis “like I showed you, remember?” She returns to the island for the inquest and argues her mother’s case. The two of them leave together, finally reconciled.
- As Selena is leaving on the ferry, she says to Dolores, “I still don’t know how to feel about what you did. But I know you did it for me.”
Some notes on important visuals in the film
The present scenes are filmed in a cool blue tone while the flashbacks are in vivid warm color. Perhaps because the lurid past is more alive than the present, which never quite recovered from it.
* The scene in which Joe hits Dolores for the first time: they’re joking around at his expense (his pants have split) but he seems to be rolling with it. Suddenly he grabs a board and hits Dolores hard across the spine, startling the viewer as much as Dolores. She stiffens where she’s standing, her face contorting into unpretty agony. She barely manages to sit down. Once she does, she’s stuck there for a while. When she can finally get up, her right arm isn’t quite working and she breaks a dish. Hours later, when she’s recovered, the viewer is again startled by a pot suddenly hitting Joe in the head so hard (while he sits watching TV) it bloodies him. Then Dolores is standing over him with an axe. He threatens her. She throws the axe in his lap, then kneels down in his face, aggressively, so close he’d have to hurt her with his bare hands rather than a board or an axe. She informs him that he is never hitting her again, or it will end with one of them in a body bag. There is nothing feminine, pretty or tragic about her in this scene: she is a hero winning a bitter victory, big and bold as Athena. Joe trembles before her like the weakling he is.
The visual cues in this scene are far more effective than the standard “man knocks woman around with punches and kicks and it’s sad.” Joe is gutless without a weapon, and gutless with a weapon when Dolores doesn’t have her back turned. It’s hard to pity Dolores because she has such agency; instead you want to cheer her. And obviously you’re being prepped to cheer later when she kills him.
** Joe’s death: as Joe hangs from the last board above the well, he is completely shocked Dolores won’t pull him up and save him. When he finally falls to his death, Dolores turns away unhappily… just in time to see the full eclipse. For just six minutes, the moon (traditional symbol of feminine forces) blots out the sun (symbol of masculine forces) and Dolores watches as the tears dry on her face.
Aaaaand the analysis will begin in the next post.
Posts in this Series
- Dolores Claiborne (first post in series)
- Dolores Claiborne: a woman’s options in a man’s world
- Dolores Claiborne: entitlement
- Dolores Claiborne: recovery