If you have read Stephen King’s short story upon which this 2010 straight-to-video release is based, this film is probably best avoided. Your time might be better spent, in fact, rereading the King story or listening to the audio version — splendidly narrated by Rob Lowe. I suspect those who haven’t read or listened to King’s story will likely enjoy “Dolan’s Cadillac” more, but only marginally so.
“Dolan’s Cadillac” isn’t the worst King adaptation — there have been far too many terrible ones for that — but although the film has its merits, it suffers from underdeveloped characters, poor performances and a curious under-reliance on the source material. Even so, the biggest problem, as I see it, with “Dolan’s Cadillac” is the source material itself. Although quite entertaining, this story doesn’t readily translate to film.
That’s largely uncharacteristic for King’s work — or maybe not, considering the numerous bad films from that work — but it likely explains why “Dolan’s Cadillac” lingered in production purgatory for almost 10 years. Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Bacon, Freddie Prinze Jr. and Gabriel Byrne all were attached to this project at various development points. None appear in the final film, and we’re left instead with a lackluster lead performance by Wes Bentley (“Ghost Rider”) and a mostly serviceable performance by Christian Slater.
Bentley plays Tom Robinson, a mild-mannered school teacher living a happy life with wife Elizabeth (Emmanuelle Vaugier). The film spends, roughly, its first 20 minutes developing the relationship between Robinson and Elizabeth, using a handful of scenes not found in the short story to convey the couple’s love and happiness. Regardless, by the time Elizabeth meets her inevitable demise at the hands of notorious gangster Jimmy Dolan (Slater), there’s been little discernible chemistry between Bentley and Vaugier. Our reaction to Elizabeth ’s death is much like Bentley’s overall performance: apathetic.
Elizabeth, it seems, happened upon the site of a human trafficking deal conducted by Dolan along an empty stretch of desert. The deal goes bad, though, and Elizabeth sees Dolan commit several murders, for which, after escaping, she agrees to testify. Big mistake. Before Elizabeth makes it to court, Dolan wires her car with C4, leaving Robinson, we’re meant to believe, an empty shell of a widow, bent on revenge. Most of these events are glossed over by King’s first-person narrator in the short story; their clumsy screen interpretation leaves the impression that King made the right choice in that, thereby keeping the narrative lean, efficient and focused.
After a couple of bumbling, half-hearted attempts at vengeance, that, at one point, brings Robinson face-to-face with Dolan (another scene not included in the short story), Robinson decides to bide his time. He spends years mapping Dolan’s movements and finally settles on an intricate, finally-tuned scheme of vengeance. That scheme involves turning Dolan’s seemingly impenetrable, tank-like Cadillac into a coffin and permanently burying it — with Dolan inside — beneath an under-construction roadway. It’s a clever, retro-style plot that borrows from and modernizes Poe’s “The Cask of the Amontillado.”
Unfortunately, although the film is decently paced and mostly holds the attention, Bentley’s performance is lifeless. There’s no discernible change between the Robinson at the film’s beginning and the one who spends hours burying “Dolan’s Cadillac” — all while taunting the uninjured, terrified gangster inside. It’s a performance meant, perhaps, to convey hauntedness and obsession that merely leaves the character bland, unrelatable and not very likeable.
Slater, on the other hand, is interesting to watch in almost every scene he occupies. Even he stumbles near the end, though; the more terrified and panicked Dolan becomes from within his motorized, fuel-injected coffin, the less believable Slater becomes. And the film’s glaring failure to tap into and fully exploit the inherit claustrophobia of being buried alive inside a Cadillac SUV falls solely on the filmmakers. Maybe I’m not sufficiently claustrophobic, but I found myself, curiously, more focused on whether Slater’s intense screaming could actually damage his voice; by the film’s conclusion, he’s notably hoarse.
The supporting players here are far worse than either of the leads. Supporting characters that are colorful and engaging on the page, become cartoonish caricatures, spouting wince-inducing dialogue. It’s difficult to tell, in fact, if the actors spewing that dialogue are as inept as the script itself.
I suspect that “Dolan’s Cadillac” could have have been improved had director Jeff Beesley directly incorporated more of King’s first-person narration instead of rewriting much of it into additional scenes. Instead, Bentley’s voiceovers, though modestly engaging, are few and far between, leaving the film feeling vaguely fragmented, as if Beesley couldn’t decide what to leave in and what to reinterpret. The film leaves a distinct impression that Bentley recorded far more voiceover material than what actually made the final cut.
All things considered, if you live nearby a Redbox kiosk, “Dolan’s Cadillac” is worth the $1 price of a single-night’s rental. Don’t be late in returning it, though. Any price greater than $1 for this film is nothing less than a rip off.
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