“Big Driver,” an odious new Lifetime movie, hides behind Stephen King’s brand and the credentials of its cast — per the billboards, “Golden Globe nominee Maria Bello! Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis! Grammy nominee Joan Jett!” (Um, huh?) — to peddle tired exploitation nonsense, in the form of a simpleminded revenge yarn. While Bello is a gifted actress (and this really plays like a one-character study much of the time), as vehicles go, it’s more of a garbage truck than anything else, which probably won’t prevent the King come-on from rewarding the network with sizable ratings.
Like a lot of the author’s stories involving writers, from “Misery” to “Secret Window” (in which Bello, incidentally, co-starred), “Big Driver” hardly revels in the milk of human kindness. Rather, Bello’s Tess Thorne — the author of a popular string of old-ladies-solve-crimes mysteries — is horribly abused, then improbably decides she must not report the incident, but rather should seek vengeance alone, seemingly more for the cathartic benefits gained by the audience than for anything approaching logic.
Tess’ tale begins innocently enough, with her having been recruited to appear at a book-signing and speaking event in an idyllic-looking town. Yet after being given very specific directions by her hostess (Ann Dowd, taking her own version of a wrong turn after splendid work in “The Leftovers” and “Masters of Sex”), Tess follows a short-cut that results in her being stranded, with a flat tire and no cell reception, in the middle of nowhere.
A huge but kindly looking fellow (Will Harris) conveniently comes along, at first offering assistance. But that’s a ruse, and Tess is raped, beaten and left for dead, and tossed into a drainage pipe faster than you can say “Shawshank.”
Directed by Mikael Salomon from an adaptation by Richard Christian Matheson, these scenes, while disturbing, are probably no more graphic than they have to be, given the context. It’s on the road that follows that “Big Driver” breaks down, as Tess eschews medical attention or calling the police, vaguely worrying about a “scandal” because of her celebrity should she go public with her account.
“No one is going to know about this,” she says to herself.
Instead, she grabs a gun out of the closet and begins plotting payback, receiving counseling from one of her imaginary characters, played by Dukakis.
Yet if the idea of a mystery writer using those wiles to track down villains has potential, as constructed here, it amounts to little more than a Google search and connecting a few rather obvious dots. In the process, Tess encounters a helpful bartender (Jett, in what’s little more than a cameo), before the climax, which is not as satisfying — or for that matter, morally challenging — as it should be.
From the casting to the marketing, Lifetime appears determined to lend a touch of class to exploitation dreck. And the sad truth is that strategy will probably work, to the extent the movie dovetails with Lifetime’s much-lampooned old women-in-peril movie niche, once one gets past the marquee names.
Such commercial considerations notwithstanding, in the wake of a recent run of cynical Lifetime movie topics, from “Saved by the Bell” to Brittany Murphy, “Big Driver” runs into another creative dead end.