Director: Mikael Salomon
Writer: Richard Christian Matheson, Stephen King
Producer: Michael Mahoney
Stars: Maria Bello, Ann Dowd, Will Harris, Joan Jett, Olympia Dukakis
Brutally assaulted and left for dead, a mystery writer seeks vengeance by taking matters into her own hands.
Mystery novelist Tess Thorne is adept at getting her “Willow Grove Knitting Society” characters out of dicey situations, but the same serendipitous savvy doesn’t apply to her real life. On her way home along a backwoods road following a book signing, Tess’ tire picks up a nail board and she ends up stranded in the boonies without a cell phone signal or a Plan B. Luckily, a Good Samaritan stops with an offer to change Tess’ flat. Unluckily, the imposing truck driver turns out to be a serial rapist and murderer.
Assaulted and dumped in a drainage ditch, Tess survives, staggers into town, and eventually makes it home with no one the wiser about what really happened. Fearful of public perception and a damaged reputation, Tess decides that the police are better left uninvolved, although she can’t help but feel that justice needs to be served. If not for her, then for the additional victims whose bodies she crawled over on her way out of that ditch. Armed with a handgun and several split personalities to keep things lively, Tess sets out to discover exactly who this mysterious “Big Driver” is, and to feed him a very cold dish.
Empowered woman of a certain age taking action against a crime of malicious misogyny is material that certainly fits squarely in the Lifetime movie wheelhouse. Except with subject matter this weighty, “Big Driver” can’t help but be snipped somewhat when presented in a made-for-cable format that shortchanges supporting roles and relies on TV tropes to ensure it reads as a Lifetime movie, instead of as a movie that just happens to have debuted on Lifetime.
Criticizing “Big Driver” for bearing the distinctness of its network origin is a bit like berating a zebra for having stripes, though. In one regard, it should be forgiven, even expected, that the film opens on a multitasking montage of Tess rushing to ready herself while gurgling out exposition to a bumpity-bop-boop beat accompaniment. On the other hand, it’s so tritely typical that it undercuts the seriousness of the setup.
Off Tess goes to a luncheon of society snoots sipping bubbles to Vivaldi’s Spring, curious behavior for a club called “Books & Brown Baggers,” since sparkling doesn’t usually pair well with PB&J from a paper sack. Later, a post-rape shower scene plays in slow-motion as an operatic voice crescendos with “ah-ah-ahhh” while Maria Bellow hangs her head in another made-for-TV moment.
A necessary evil in a mostly one-woman movie is coming up with a way for that character to communicate when she features mainly in solo scenes. “Big Driver” comes up with five. Tess already has a habit of talking to herself and reading out loud. Part of Tess’ writing process is to also work through her thoughts verbally. Internal monologues supply additional narration, too. Tom, the synthesized voice on Tess’ GPS, plays as another part of her psyche. So does Doreen Marquis, Tess’ fictionalized incarnation of the already fictional Jessica Fletcher, and another manifestation of the woman’s fractured mind. All of these outlets are forcibly contrived, but Mario Bello manages to make them work through sheer force of her personality.
Bello is a workhorse actress long deserving of being a household name, yet eternally fighting to find a breakout role that can fill her capacity to be a marquee draw. “Big Driver” isn’t it, but she embodies the title by being the force through which the movie succeeds as a stunner and as an entertainer, in the irregular instances when it does.
The good about “Big Driver” is that it isn’t a brutality focused or viscerally charged rape-revenge movie, such as “Last House on the Left” or “I Spit on Your Grave” can be considered. “Big Driver” has a satisfying swath of mystery cutting through its premise that offers more of a story-based hook than a straight street justice thriller. The bad is that “Big Driver” can’t balance its entertainment value with the commentary sandwiched into its center.
One scene features Tess stumbling into a store after her assault, caked in blood and draped in torn clothing. Onlookers unilaterally disregard her with contemptuous glares as though she is an off-ramp beggar belching for loose change. It’s a dangerous suggestion to depict a situation where literally everyone willfully ignores someone in such obvious physical and emotional distress.
Tess decides shortly thereafter that going to the authorities would be a mistake. “Once it’s out, some will say I asked for it,” she reasons. Except this isn’t a case of a questionably-motivated groupie going up to a celebrity’s hotel room. Why would anyone suggest that she intentionally put herself in a position to have her car sabotaged before being sexually violated and her body dumped in a watery corpse pit?
I understand that in reality, irrational fears can be prevalent in horribly traumatized assault victims. But in a work of fantasy, when disbelief demands become hangups in a viewer’s head, it detracts from the ability to empathize with the character’s point of view. Such works need to show fractured thinking and fragile vulnerability to arc their heroines into strong vigilantes. Yet “Big Driver” chooses to do so through nagging questions that preoccupy the fiction, and thus prevent a full escape into Tess’ mindset.
In expanding from Stephen King’s novella to Richard Christian Matheson’s teleplay, “Big Driver” unnecessarily bloats the relevance of its roster. On the page, Tess’ cat Fritz is her chief anthropomorphic conduit for schizophrenic self-conversations. On the screen, GPS voice Tom and imaginary novel protagonist Doreen make for more cinematically sensible co-stars. Doreen however, is so randomly inserted that she reads as a vaguely defined peanut gallery observer, as opposed to part of Tess’ personality. Tess’ relationship with her monotone navigation system has a more organic feel than her association with Doreen.
Adapting third-person fiction focused on one woman into a visual narrative with multiple players is a key obstacle for “Big Driver.” It has only five billed stars and that is surprisingly too many. Everyone loves Joan Jett. Even more so when she shows up as a rough road barmaid with a glass eye in a biker joint. Truth is, “Big Driver” requires her presence no more than it does Tess’ next-door BFF, or a needless aside with a nosy highway trooper.
“Big Driver” settles in as “fine enough” for a 90-minute time-passer with a bit more bite than an average revenge thriller. Mario Bello’s strong performance and the mild mystery twist take it all the way down field for the duration. It’s the traditional TV trappings and strained handling of the subtext gnawing off more than they can chew.
Review Score: 60