Although Stephen King’s books are often unfairly maligned by heavyweight literary figures (when King was awarded the prestigious Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003, the academic Harold Bloom rather nastily dismissed him as ‘immensely inadequate… a writer of penny dreadfuls’). His fiction—particularly the short stories and novellas – is usually lean, well-paced and characterised, and often relies on an ingenious central concept or intriguing gimmick to propel the narrative forward (think The Ledge from the Night Shift collection). Also, to this Brit at least, King’s focus on the minutiae of American life and his evocative descriptions of folksy Americana are very appealing indeed. Excepting a few misses, I find King’s oeuvre admirable.
However, cinematic adaptations of his work present a slightly patchier proposition. For every Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption and The Shining, there’s always a Graveyard Shift, Thinner and Needful Things to stink up the joint. Some adaptations start decently (Cujo), initially promising much, only to subsequently crumble under the weight of flaws and expectation (akin to taking a beautiful red and white 1958 Plymouth Fury out for a spin only to find the crankshaft clanks, the sump pisses oil, and it appears to steer itself).
So, the big question: where does the direct-to-DVD Dolan’s Cadillac fit in to all this? Well, let’s just say this film has more in common with The Mangler than it does with Misery.
Based on King’s short story from 1993’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes, Dolan’s Cadillac features a pair of young, loved up schoolteachers, Tom and Elizabeth Robinson (the dorky Wes Bentley and the beautiful Emmanuelle Vaugier), who are enjoying life and trying for a baby. However, during a solo horse-riding trip in the Las Vegas wilderness, Elizabeth stumbles upon a botched people-trafficking transaction and witnesses a ruthless mob boss, Dolan (a miscast Christian Slater), executing some rivals plus a member of the human cargo.
Elizabeth is spotted by Dolan and manages to escape after dodging his bullets, but she is car-bombed days later by his crime syndicate. A devastated Tom vows to avenge Elizabeth’s death, and so begins the cyclical tale of violence begetting violence, revenge, and the moral implications of using evil against evil.
Now, this is all fine and dandy until you realise what the filmmakers have done with King’s work. They have jettisoned the concise simplicity of the original source text, instead producing a very odd, disjointed and pretentious film that will disappoint fans of the story and test the patience of the impartial.
The script for Dolan’s Cadillac has a hollowness to it, seeming little more than an exercise in verbosity with no real substance, striving in vain for existential profundity (yes, this is still a Stephen King adaptation we’re talking about, folks) and containing ridiculous dialogue and a cod-portentous narration littered with all manner of silly platitudes. To illustrate this point, the script even goes as far as to lift text from King’s earlier novel The Stand, using it in Tom’s sombre voiceover to describe the supposed dark and dangerous complexity of the gangster Dolan:
When he grins, birds fall off telephone lines. When he looks at you a certain way, your prostate goes bad and your urine burns. He has the name of a thousand demons; he can call the wolves and live in with the crows. He is the king of nowhere.
In The Stand, this descriptive passage is fine, referring to the demonic Randall Flagg, the all-seeing, all-knowing embodiment of evil. In Dolan’s Cadillac, used to describe the mortal young thug Dolan, it is preposterously out of context.Or how about this nugget of ‘wisdom’ from Dolan himself, as he incomprehensively ponders over the meaning of the word ‘where’ (don’t ask):
Where. It’s a fundamental interrogative pertaining to location; a place, a point in space. Where. A question.
What?! The only thing more confusing than wondering who decided this sort of try-hard dialogue was suitable for the film is finding out the script was penned by the otherwise impressive author Richard Dooling. What was he thinking? This is a $10 million adaptation of a great story, highly commercially viable, yet any hope of success seems to have been sabotaged by self-indulgence and forced, ornate discourse. If the director Jeff Beesley and Dooling thought they were making a thought-provoking intellectual exploration of revenge, violence and morality, then hanging such misguided ambition onto a genuinely fun, suspenseful and straightforward King tale is a very tall order indeed, and saps the potential to enjoy the film viscerally.
To add to the disorientation, Dolan’s Cadillac is also full of strange, surreal transitional sequences (for example, to articulate Tom’s inner turmoil following Elizabeth’s death, he is seen literally walking around ‘hell on earth’ for a few seconds, complete with apocalyptic flames and shadowy female dancers). Furthermore, the section of the film charting the passage of time during which Tom struggles with loss and an encroaching breakdown – in the original story this amounts to several years—is badly paced and compressed into a few short scenes featuring pointless and weird visual trickery and clichéd revolving shots of Tom guzzling booze and talking to his psychiatrist, in voiceover, about the tranquilisers he is taking.
Although the film picks up slightly during the last third when it concerns itself with Tom’s creative revenge tactic – which I won’t reveal here, other than saying that the title hints at two key players—the overall tone is uncertain and schizophrenic. Despite the filmmakers’ misplaced confidence, it appears they were nevertheless unsure of how to proceed creatively, and this suspicion is vindicated when during his interview in the extras featurette, Beesley rather bafflingly states that Dolan’s Cadillac is ‘an art film’, yet in the very next sentence proclaims it is also ‘your average Saturday night popcorn movie’. Eh?
On the plus side, Gerald Packer’s blown-out and parched cinematography nicely evokes the sunburnt, dusty and arid landscape of Vegas (much of the film was actually shot in Canada, which is testament to Packer’s skill), and the sound design is creepy and imaginative without ever being intrusive or self-conscious.
Crucially though, Beesley has expended so much energy on adolescent poeticism that he has failed with the basics, unable to illicit any sympathy for the plight of our hero and heroine. The young couple are thrust into major trauma within the first eight-minutes of the film, and at that early stage we don’t know the characters properly and care little about them, therefore it’s no surprise that apathy prevails, stunting the film before it’s really begun. Coupled with that fact that Slater fails to inhabit what should be the powerful, menacing character of Dolan—who was a much older mafia don in King’s story – the cast struggles with ineffective direction, overly complicated writing, and miscasting.
Dolan’s Cadillac reminds me somewhat of Guy Ritchie’s Revolver, another film tripped up by its posturing pretentiousness and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. Ritchie, you may remember, answered critics who derided Revolver with a dismissive claim that “they didn’t get it.” I certainly – and unfortunately – ‘get’ what Beesley and Dooley have tried to achieve with Dolan’s Cadillac, but they’ve failed. Viewers of Revolver wanted a knockabout gangster flick and they were short-changed; viewers of this film probably want Stephen King, in which case they’ll be similarly disappointed.
Sadly for Canadian television director Beesley, Dolan’s Cadillac is his debut feature, and on the strength of this I foresee him having trouble getting another gig of this scale. That’s a shame, because it was a great opportunity for him, and to be fair he does have talent, but rather than sticking to the efficient, reliable simplicity of the original story, he instead chased his tail in an ever-expanding whirl of film school experimentation, all the while indulged by Dooling’s florid screenplay.
The DVD’s extras are passable, and consist of a documentary featurette Behind the Wheel of Dolan’s Cadillac and a reel of additional behind-the-scenes footage. Behind the Wheel is quite interesting from a technical perspective, although the slight air of self-congratulatory backslapping exhibited by the cast and crew belies the very problematic film they’ve produced. Additionally, the documentary’s dreadful narration sounds as if it has been recorded in a lavatory, which some may suggest – uncharitably perhaps – is fairly appropriate.