It has been 25 years since horror and suspense writer Stephen King has adapted one of his works into a feature film release. Yet this time the master of horror did not fashion just another horrific tale from the dark side, but instead dug into one of his more genteel human pieces the likes of Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption. Yes, King penned those masterpieces, as well as A Good Marriage.
A Good Marriage is the film adaptation from the Stephen King novella of the same name. It is based on the real life events of the BTK serial killer Dennis Rader. Between 1974 and 1991 Rader murdered 10 people in Sedgwick County, Kansas. Two of the victims were children, ages 9 and 11. The acronym BTK (meaning Bind, Torture and Kill) was the signature that Rader attached to each of this victims.
A curious aspect of this true life story are the assertions from Rader’s wife Paula that she knew nothing of Rader’s nefarious activities. Yet in the late ’70s Paula found the draft of a poem written by her husband about a gruesome murder. Mrs. Rader explained that her husband had convinced her that is was written as a piece for one of his college classes. Authorities ultimately determined that Paula Rader was unaware of her husband’s macabre activities.
Enter in the mind of Stephen King as he speculates what must have went on in the home of the Rader family. This true-life story inspires him to pen A Good Marriage, a fictional novella of a woman who discovers that she has been living with a serial killer after decades of marriage. Joan Allen portrays Darcy. Darcy is a loving wife, and mother of two young adult children. Her daughter is planning a wedding and the other sibling embarking on a new business venture.
A Good Marriage introduces this suburban family via the 25th wedding anniversary party of Darcy and her husband Bob (Anthony LaPaglia). They appear to be a happy enough, sexually active couple. Bob is loving, playful, and attentive. He is a successful accountant and a collector of rare coins that Darcy devotedly assists him with. On one particular day while Bob is away on a business trip, Darcy stumbles upon a hidden stash that implicates her husband in string of torturous and murderous offenses against young women. The serial murderer leaves the signature “Beadie” with each of his young victims.
The first 45 minutes of A Good Marriage is where director Peter Askin (and perhaps King as well) loses his audience. While the incomparable Joan Allen is incapable of delivering a bad performance, what the character Darcy experiences for the next 24 hours following her discovery is poorly rendered by Askin. Bob comes home early and startles Darcy in their bedroom.
Detached and nonchalant, Bob proceeds to confess his deeds to a terrified Darcy after he realizes his hiding place has been found. He confesses that it is not really him committing the crimes but someone in his head. He assures his wife that he would never harm her, and he reminds her how harmful it would be to their children’s lives if his macabre activities as Beadie were to ever get out.
This scene of A Good Marriage is initially rendered a tad confusing and throws off the remaining sequences. It appears that Darcy is merely steeped in fear and paranoia, only dreaming that Bob has discovered her snooping. Yet it becomes evident that the event really did take place. This ambiguous sequence is subsequently difficult to brush off and can leave viewers a tad chafed. If this aspect of the film was applied on purpose then it was rendered utterly ineffective. If it was an editing flub then it still fails to compliment Askin. Askin (Company Man) does not have a strong directorial resume behind him and perhaps should not have been the choice for this Stephen King adaptation. That being said, once the film progresses beyond this point it handily redeems itself. This aspect of the film can be ignored if the viewer is so inclined to do so.
It is at this point of the film that A Good Marriage becomes more thought-provoking. Viewers embrace King’s tale of the beleaguered Darcy, and what later in the film becomes her cunning resolve. While Darcy appears daunted and defeated by her predicament, as the tale progresses it becomes evident that she is far more quick-witted than previously revealed. In an effort to save herself and her family name, Darcy fashions a calculated move against her sinister husband that ultimately leaves her triumphant.
Viewers are to keep in mind that A Good Marriage is merely a work of speculative fiction via the mind of Stephen King. While the real life Paula Rader was cleared by the authorities of having any knowledge of her husbands deadly deeds, the public may not be as utterly convinced. A Good Marriage, which has been criticized and deemed exploitative by Rader’s adult daughter Kerri Rawsom, speculates that the wife must have known and kept this knowledge within in order to preserve the stability of her family.
Joan Allen as Darcy is a dramatic and wondrous force to be reckoned with. This film without question belongs to Allen and her rendering of a woman compromised by an ominous, unforeseen dilemma. However, Askin’s rendering of the character Bob was caricatured and unappealing. Perhaps the character was penned this way by King, but it does not work for the screen.
While there was certainly nothing wrong with LaPaglia’s performance, the character rendering failed to match the overall delivery of the production. LaPaglia is a polished and respected actor in his own right and A Good Marriage does nothing to serve his reputation. Almost comic-like, the character Bob was annoying and unbelievable. It drastically diminished the credibility of the production, and was in sheer opposition to the performance rendered by Allen. Again, Askin missed his mark here. It is Askin’s job to glean from the writer whatever he deemed appropriate to glean, and to alter whatever he decides should be altered. While it is not evident what Askin gleaned and what he altered, the result did not work. Perhaps there could have been artistic stress between the writer and director, but that remains unknown.
Veteran character actor Stephen Lang delivers a powerful performance as an unnamed man who skulks about outside of Bob and Darcy’s home. His purpose is soon enough revealed and elevates the production from lackluster to palatable.
In the end A Good Marriage does indeed serve as a thought-provoking tale of what could have transpired in such a scenario. It inspires viewers to produce their own scenarios and speculative conclusions. The final 25 minutes or so serve to be far more compelling than the rest of the production, which is redeeming and serves as a plus for Askin. This production is not an utter failure for the director and will hopefully serve to provide him with more scripts.
A Good Marriage is in limited release in selected theaters. It is rated R and runs for a comfortable 102 minutes.
By Janet Walters Levite