It’s always a pleasure to see Maria Bello, Ann Dowd, and Olympia Dukakis, the three actresses at the center of this new Stephen King adaptation. Bello can do drama and tension; Dukakis can do knowing, wry commentary with a simple shift of her brow; and Dowd, from “The Leftovers,” “Masters of Sex,” and “True Detective” can do almost anything. I was looking forward to seeing this trio of talent, who get a brief novelty assist from Joan Jett, she who loves rock ’n’ roll and putting dimes in jukeboxes.
Too bad Lifetime’s “Big Driver,” which premieres Saturday at 8 p.m., doesn’t give them much to work with. The movie is based on a King story from the 2010 collection “Full Dark, No Stars,” and it’s too simple and straightforward for its own good. Adapted by screenwriter Richard Christian Matheson, the narrative travels from A to B to C with nary an unexpected twist or subtle discovery. Thrillers don’t need plot surprises to be good, but they do need to offer some revelations along the way, in character development if not in story line. Otherwise, the whole thing feels static.
Bello plays Tess Thorne, a novelist who specializes in cozy mysteries featuring older ladies who are amateur detectives. She does a book-signing event in a small New England town, where she encounters Dowd’s creepy fan, Ramona Norville. On her way home, via a rural shortcut recommended by Ramona, Tess has a tire blow out and stands waiting for help. A giant guy with a cherub-gone-wrong kind of face pulls up in a truck and promises to change her tire. But alas, he’s a nasty pig who beats her, rapes her, and leaves her for dead in a drainage pipe beside the bodies of other victims.
Tess decides not to report the crime. She’s afraid she’ll be blamed or rejected by readers or something; “Big Driver” doesn’t explore her reasoning, perhaps because we know that so much works against rape victims in our culture. She’d rather go after the truck driver herself, in an obsessive journey of vengeance. She goes home and, like one of her lady detectives, she investigates the identity and location of her assailant. Dukakis plays one of Tess’s lady detectives, who magically appears to offer advice to Tess. “Don’t get caught,” she says with a smile. “If you do there are dismal repercussions.”
Also magical: Tess’s GPS, which talks. “I’m sorry that man hurt you,” he says to her. He helps her talk through her plan, when she’s not talking about it to her cat or to herself.
And so “Big Driver” becomes a unswerving revenge tale that’s awkwardly cut with whimsical humor and reverberates with echoes of pointlessness. When I finished the movie, I felt nothing much, except that it’s definitely time to appreciate Dowd, a screen and stage veteran who can make the most ordinary women into demented souls. She’s an actress even a GPS can love.