You wouldn’t know it from watching Misery (1990), but director Rob Reiner had no experience whatsoever in making thrillers when he accepted the difficult job of adapting this bottle-thriller. Sure, he made Stand by Me (1986), another Stephen King adaptation, but Misery is a far cry from a coming of age story, let alone something with Reiner’s light comedic touch like The Princess Bride (1987). In preparation for the job, which King specifically requested he handle personally, Reiner went on a thriller binge, diving deep into the works of Alfred Hitchcock in order to piece together the grammar of a genre that was foreign to his hands. Reiner had a couple major takeaways from all his research, but his most interesting observation? Insert shots are really important to a thriller.
It’s true: inserts are key. A clean cutaway to a single shot of a specific prop in the middle of a scene instantly lets the audience know “this object is capital-S-Significant.” Psycho (1960), for example, uses repeated insert shots of the money its erstwhile protagonist stole as a way to fool audiences into thinking it was important to the story it was telling. It’s important to signify these Significant plot objects, because a good thriller is a lot like a juggling act.
The story has to keep introducing enough Significant objects, and then throw them all up in the air until the audience can’t quite keep track of them all. You know they’re going to come back down again, but you don’t know when, and you don’t know how. That’s what creates tension: it’s Chekov’s Gun by way of multiplication. If a thriller is a juggling act, then Misery is like juggling a dozen steak knives while trapped in a broom closet: it juggles perhaps the most Significant objects of any thriller I can think of, and it does so in an incredibly claustrophobic and dangerous setting.
Misery begins with not one, but three insert shots. The circumstances of their introduction are innocuous enough. Author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) has just finished his latest novel and he always celebrates the same way every time: with a cigarette, a champagne flute, and a bottle of Dom Perignon. The clean close-ups used to shoot these objects declare their importance without any dialogue necessary. By the end of the film, after Sheldon injures his legs and has become a patient, and captive, of his self-proclaimed number-one fan Annie Wilkes (a hellishly mercurial Kathy Bates), those same three objects play a pivotal role in the climax, along with numerous others that have all been set up earlier in the film. Reiner plays the long game with so many of these crucial items, always signifying import with an insert, and then delaying their release—thus increasing tension—before bringing them all back for payoffs that feel both surprising and inevitable.
A great example of Reiner’s deliberate building of tension through the use of his coded props is when Sheldon, who has been hoarding the little orange pain pills Wilkes has been giving him, eventually manages to break out of his room and steal a whole batch more of these pills in a plot to poison her. The entire sequence, from him breaking out of his room, to him concealing the package just as she returns home, is so fraught with anxiety, and yet, rather than being a linear and self-contained suspense sequence, is a springboard for more tension down the line.
It’s not until later in the film, after Sheldon empties out the pills into a packet he constructs, and finally has the pretense to lure Wilkes into a romantic dinner-turned-ambush, that he gets the chance to enact his plan and use the pills that were introduced so much earlier in the film. And yet, this delayed gratification as it were (in this case, the satisfaction withers to dismay as Wilkes inadvertently knocks over her poisoned glass of wine before she has a chance to drink it), never feels as if the film is dragging its feet, because it’s just one of many plot elements that is introduced, and we’re always anxious about another of those Significant objects that keep being lobbed into the story. When is the Sheriff going to find Sheldon’s wrecked car? What’s in the scrapbook titled “Memory Lane”? When is Wilkes going to notice the misplaced penguin?
This canny juggling of Significant objects makes the confined interiors of the film suddenly feel expansive, not in terms of geographic space, but in plot possibilities. The premise of Misery is a great double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a killer hook: an author, crippled in a car crash, is trapped in a room and at the mercy of a dangerous stalker. It’s instantly captivating because it seems like an impossible situation for the protagonist to escape. On the other hand, from the filmmaker’s perspective, they not only have to come up with a satisfying solution to this predicament, but they have to make it an active journey for this bedridden character to make the path to the solution actually satisfying.
This is a stark contrast to another King adaptation about a protagonist held prisoner on a bed, Gerald’s Game (2017), where there was a constant struggle to both present the story in visual terms and find ways for its protagonist to remain active throughout. Where Gerald’s Game stumbled and relied heavily upon dialogue and flashback rather than thrills, Misery never struggles with the self-imposed constraints of its concept and remains visually thrilling throughout.
Without the insert shots, Misery simply wouldn’t be able to function. Objects would be lost in the mise en scène, and all the tension would have to reside in the what is said and done, rather than the liminal spaces of the “yet to come,” where suspense works the best. The spaces in the story where we are anticipating when Wilkes will find the knife hidden under Sheldon’s mattress, or waiting to see what’s inside “Memory Lane,” instead become spaces where we are simply waiting for something to happen. But by not only using this important piece of thriller grammar, but crafting the very framework of the suspense around it, Misery turns everyday ordinary objects into ticking time-bombs of suspense.
Misery is a clear effort of a genre outsider who has done his homework, and Reiner brings his rigorous preparation to the film with a fervor and care not often seen outside of the masters of the genre. The Shining (1980), Carrie (1976), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and Reiner’s own Stand by Me are frequently name-checked as the best King adaptations, and Misery not only stands tall with those titles, but among great thrillers in general. They say misery loves company, and this particular Misery keeps very fine company indeed.