Ballsy, unapologetic rape revenge meller, with that sick, patented Stephen King black humor. Lionsgate has released Big Driver, the 2014 Lifetime made-for-TV thriller, based on King's 2010 novella, scripted (with genuine anger) by Richard Christian Matheson, directed (with deceptively sly skill) by Mikael Salomon, and starring Maria Bello, Ann Dowd, Will Harris, Joan Jett, and Olympia Dukakis. Last fall, when Big Driver premiered on Lifetime (a strike right there for some in the media--they'd have added at least one star if it ran on HBO), it pissed off a lot of faux-outraged critics who balked at its violence in service of one female rape victim's f*ck you message: You rape? You die. Top-notch performances from the illustrious cast and big screen-worthy tech credits help make Big Driver definitely one to seek out. An additional digital copy of the movie, for download or streaming, is the only extra for this beautiful anamorphically-enhanced widescreen transfer.
East coast writer Tess Thorne (Maria Bello, is a flat-out sensational, jangly turn), the author of the popular Willow Grove Knitting Society "cozy" mystery series, is late for another one of those essential/dreadful networking/marketing obligations: a talk at a small, local library, with a colorful collection of her loyal readers. Traveling some distance over a difficult freeway, Tess is grateful to the event's animated organizer, Ramona Norville (Ann Dowd, truly frightening and strange), for a shortcut way home. However, when she runs over some debris and blows a tire on a deserted, woodsy two-lane blacktop, she's stranded. Salvation comes when "Big Driver" Lester (Will Harris) comes by in his truck; he'll help Tess change her tire. Damnation follows, though, when he suddenly turns on her, beating and choking her, and dragging her off to a nearby abandoned, dilapidated store, where he repeatedly and violently rapes and violates her. Dumping her body in a flooded culvert, Lester leaves, believing she's dead...like the other decomposing bodies of women he's raped and left in the watercourse tunnel. Tess, however, is very much alive--in shock, but alive. Torn between telling someone and asking for their help, or keeping everything quiet out of fear of somehow being blamed for the assault, she eventually decides on silence...and personal, bloody revenge, with the help of bar owner Betsy Neal (Joan Jett, fine in a too-short cameo), one of Tess' fictional characters, Doreen (Olympia Dukakis, hilarious) and "Tom," her GPS system and trusted friend.
Reviewer's Note: Pretty much every online review of Big Driver I found this weekend gave away the story's beginning, middle, and end, without spoiler warnings. If that's because King's novella was widely read, or because the critics simply didn't care, I don't know. Since the plotline seems to be out there and readily available, I will freely discuss those major reveals in this review. So if you don't know the plot, and you want to keep it that way, I recommend you don't read further, and just buy the disc. It's highly recommended. Otherwise...notice given.
As a regular viewer of both Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network (lose the lame reality and documentary programming, people, and get back to the crude melodrama), I of course saw Big Driver when it premiered back in October, 2014. From the cable network's full court press marketing that relentlessly flogged this "Stephen King comes to Lifetime movie event," it was hard to tell if Big Driver was going to be a limited series or a mini (the way it was sold, it seemed too expensive and "important" to be just a 90-minute MTV), so I didn't know what to expect when I tuned in that night--particularly since I wasn't familiar with King's novella, either (I was probably in high school the last time I read him). What I didn't expect, though, was the chorus of indignant outrage from a whole passel of critics who didn't take too kindly to Big Driver's violent rape revenge storyline. Considering the overwhelmingly one-sided political bent of most of the mainstream media reviewers out there, the equally liberal-leaning people involved in the production like Bello, Dukakis, and of course King, and subject matter that should have screamed a most-welcome "female empowerment squared," I would have thought Big Driver would have received big across-the-board kudos from the lefty critics. But something about this made-for-TV movie rubbed them the wrong way...and I know just what it was.
Reading some of the huffy, self-righteous, downright pissed-off reviews for Big Driver was almost as entertaining as watching this exceedingly well-made, nervy exploitation thriller (it starts like a blown-out, creepy dream, and then goes right into shocking night terrors--and stays there). Complaints registered had a wide range. Relatively minor problems vexed some reviewers, such as completely misreading the movie's overall feel (someone bizarrely wrote that it had a "jaunty, Cabot Cove [Murder, She Wrote] tone" that undercut the movie's message), or confusion over plot points they somehow missed (you really can't figure out how or why her car got to the bar, with the tire fixed? Maybe they need someone on the Sports desk...). Some thought it was all a dream, and therefore worthless. True, the narrator is completely unreliable here--she admits to having heard voices in her head since she was a child...while she has credible conversations with her GPS system--but short of a supernatural element (which you could buy with King), it's pretty clear these events are happening to Tess. Others had problems with King's black humor; when "Big Driver" is screaming for mercy at the finale, Dukakis' fictional muse very politely instructs Bello, "If I may weight in, dear: waste the whiney bitch," (Hitchcock may have been more subtle, but King's no sicker than Hitch when it comes to mixing laughs with deeply unpleasant themes). Someone wrote that Tess was essentially an unsympathetic character, and that her manner made it difficult for them to "care" about her plight...which means what, exactly? She deserved to get raped because of how you perceived her personality (someone didn't think that one through, did they)? The extended rape scene was a problem for many, because, according to them, it dwelled too long on the act itself (be aware that these are the same critics who reliably soil themselves rhapsodizing over the pornographic violence of the latest Tarantino flick). And that so-called lingering somehow did...what? Glamorized the act? Sensationalized it? Exploited it? They don't exactly say (someone wrote the camera "lingers on too long and loves too well" this rape), but nothing in director Mikael Salomon's handling of this scene results in titillation (which is really what those creepy reviewers are implying will happen)--it's horrific and sickening and ugly and deeply depressing. And it makes you angry, too, as it rightly should (now we're starting to get closer to what's bugging those critics).
After being raped, sodomized, and beaten half to death, Tess wavers about letting anyone know about the assault, before finally choosing silence. That way, no one can accuse her of "asking for it," or say she wasn't aware enough of her potentially dangerous situation out on the road, or use this celebrity victim as grotesque public theater for a prurient public--all fairly plausible reasons, particularly for someone in physical and psychological shock. Critics said it's ridiculous that she wouldn't tell anyone (I would suggest they don't know much about rape stats, and how many go unreported). This plot point received universal scorn from the critics who hated Big Driver, and therein lies the key to what's really eating at them: they don't really want Tess to take the matter of justice into her own hands (and by extension, they don't trust you boobs out there, and your primitive, illogical emotions raised by such crass, sensationalistic fare). And certainly they don't want her exacting vengeance the way she does so here: logically, cold-bloodedly, without remorse, without pity, without guilt (that's not "civilized"). Big Driver' script isn't interested in telling us why "Big Driver" rapes and murders--we've already seen countless movies attempting to explain such sickness and sadism in certain men. It's not needed here. But it's stated very clearly why Tess does what she does: she kills because she wants "an eye for an eye. I got my justice." Her sense of logic, the sense that informed her mystery writing, is first insulted and then transformed by this random act of violence visited on her, and she means to revenge that betrayal at any cost (in the end, newly cognizant of her fire-branded strength, she states that she's always been violent, deep down--only now she acknowledges it). And that old school, deeply conservative (if you will) retribution, married to what those critics (and by extension, their politics) believe is their issue, a strictly progressive issue--female empowerment--drives them absolutely batty. In today's world where any kind of "might" is considered wrong, and where there is no such concept as "right" anyway, this kind of base, primal, and thoroughly just empowerment-through-violence overloads their circuits. It's a deeply threatening thought to their utterly false Eloi utopia (this kind of wishful thinking wants more candles lit for those well-intentioned-but-useless "Take Back the Night" vigils, while Big Driver's politics translate into arming women young and old with guns...while waiting in vain for a law that makes rape a capital offense, punishable by death).
As Tess goes from killing "Big Driver"'s mother (who actually arranged the assault) in a pitiless, merciless manner--gruesomely stabbing her, and then, with a grim smirk on her face, waiting for the mother to beg for help before shooting her in the head--to accidentally killing his little brother (whom Tess deduces was also complicit; he took photos of the assaults), to slaughtering "Big Driver" himself (the nail-studded board to the head and a crotch-shot bullet are a deeply satisfying exploitation coups de grace for this loathsome villain), the viewer open to ancient, "clean" reckoning/justice isn't going to have the problem a Variety reviewer had with Tess' final snuff, which the reviewer whined wasn't "morally challenging" enough. Maybe I missed something, but where's the question of morality here, for Tess? Tess was brutalized and left for dead, so she stalked and killed her attacker. Where's the ethical quandary...since this is, after all, just an exploitation movie designed to get an emotional, even visceral reaction out of a viewer, and not a court of law in the real world (when the purveyors of screen violence line up with the critics' lefty politics, it's a work of art, but when it looks like "bitter clingers" might be inadvertently engaged, there's a "problem" with the movie that needs to be addressed--just Google American Sniper and scumbags Michael Moore and Howard Dean). That's what's so bracing about Big Driver. It doesn't give a sh*t about ethics, or the law (he'd just claim insanity and, "Goodbye, electric chair," anyway), or guilt, or what's "fair," or anything other than a heinous crime, and its absolute--and absolutely satisfying--punishment. One reviewer called Big Driver "disturbingly retro." If that reviewer meant Big Driver eschews the "we all blow" moral equivalency of the heroes and villains that permeates pop culture today, taking grim pleasure instead in identifying insensible evil and then eradicating it first-person, and with merciless prejudice, well then, that critic is right...even is she doesn't know why she's right.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.