For such a prolific author – and few writers of popular or literary fiction come close to his prodigious output – Stephen King has penned relatively few screenplays. Some are wonderful (CREEPSHOW), some less so (MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE), but they’re all interesting to fans of his work. The latest, A GOOD MARRIAGE, is an adaptation of his own novella from 2010’s collection FULL DARK, NO STARS. The novella is a great read, but, unlike the longer works for which he’s best known, isn’t substantial enough to sustain a full length feature. As such, King has expanded the story, taking it in a (mostly) logical new direction that adds substance and scale to the narrative. Meatier than the original, there’s plenty of plot for leads Joan Allen and Anthony LaPaglia to sink their teeth into, but the extended running time means it lacks the punch and the scares of the novella.
The premise couldn’t be simpler; happily married Darcy (Allen) discovers a number of hidden trophies, and realises her husband Bob (LaPaglia) is notorious serial killer ‘Beadie’, responsible for the rape and murder of a dozen women in Maine (where else?) It’s a promising premise, and King doesn’t waste it by kicking his heels – after an effective introduction where we’re assured of the rock-solid foundations of the marriage, the discovery is quick to arrive. King, a master of characterisation, makes an unlikely scenario chillingly plausible, and Allen, on whose shoulders the film rests, demonstrates the palpable pathos of a woman whose whole world has just collapsed. I won’t spoil what happens next, but it makes for a nail-biting first act.
The film isn’t a two-hander, but it’s close. The leads are both up to the task, with Allen doing the heavy lifting, and LaPaglia shifting between charming and homicidal with psychotic aplomb. If the performances are stellar, Peter Askin’s direction is the opposite. Despite its R rating and the calibre of the talent both in front of and behind the camera, A GOOD MARRIAGE looks and feels like a TV movie. The action is stilted and the horror muted; despite the unsettling subject matter, Askin insists on pulling his punches, delivering a tepid cut that is too racy for kids and too bland for grown-ups (and entirely too enamoured of dream sequences). King’s bloated script doesn’t help – he expands the story too far, allowing what should have been a concise tale to meander. Worse, he fails to exploit the juiciest of the plot points. Are we to believe that Bob, an inveterate sadistic serial killer, gives up his bloody hobby without so much as a twinge of temptation? If he does undergo an internal struggle it isn’t articulated. And what’s the point of including a semi-retired cop who suspects Bob of the killings if you’re not going to make use of him? I think I know what King’s doing – he’s trying to avoid cliché and keep his story unpredictable – but in doing so he misses one dramatic opportunity after another.
A GOOD MARRIAGE is a mixed bag. Its premise is strong, recalling the spectre of the horrific BTK killings of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and boasts two wonderful central performances. King’s flair for characterisation shines through, and as a treatise on the impenetrability of the human psyche, and a stark reminder that we can never fully know another person, it’s a success. But as a horror film or a thriller it’s flawed. Askin’s direction lacks dynamism, and the story’s languid pacing means it drags. King’s legions of loyal fans will find plenty to enjoy, especially when it comes to comparing and contrasting with the original novella, but everyone else will probably find it too tame.