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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Pablo Larraín proves an ideal match for Stephen King in Lisey’s Story premiere

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Image of Julianne Moore and Clive Owen in Apple TV Plus' Lisey's Story
Julianne Moore and Clive Owen star in Lisey’s Story
Photo: Apple TV Plus

The prospect of a Stephen King adaptation is one that comes with a mix of excitement and terror. It isn’t for any particular fear of the mysteries at the core of much of his work, but rather the knowledge that many of these adaptations, be they films or shows, are likely to fail for myriad reasons. From the first episode of Lisey’s Story, it’s clear that Apple TV+ and director Pablo Larraín are an ideal match for the writer, willing to indulge his every desire.

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With a double premiere, “Blood Hunt” and “Blood Bool,” King’s story takes its sweet time introducing us to the world its protagonist uncomfortably navigates. Lisey (Julianne Moore), pronounced “lee-see,” is the widow of acclaimed novelist Scott Landon (Clive Owen), floating around an empty home almost as though she herself has passed on. Where she seems disinterested in life as it is, without Scott, outside forces interrupt the process of mourning.

It’s as riveting to watch Julianne Moore wander through her own memory as it is witnessing her interactions with those around her. There’s an ache to her performance that feels pulled from any one of her previous film roles, from the intimate intensity of Safe to the loud melodrama of Magnolia. Where King’s novel is reliant on the machinations of Lisey’s experiences, lengthily describing what each thought and gesture entails, much of Larraín’s direction relies on the emphasis of atmosphere and aesthetic. His feature Jackie instantly comes to mind in the way it follows its widow, but with shockingly less warmth. One of the most interesting things is the distance present between characters, not just emotionally but physically on screen (with its blocking likely impacted by COVID restrictions, but no less effective), and the way he allows scenes to breathe.

Pacing-wise, these first two episodes aren’t far off from how Nicolas Winding Refn and Ed Brubaker approached Too Old To Die Young. Like its fellow auteur-driven miniseries, Lisey’s Story is practically designed to isolate audiences who aren’t fond of being challenged by their thrillers. As much heady visual storytelling as it packs into both of these first episodes, whisking the viewer away from present to past fluidly and frequently in a playfully non-linear fashion, “Blood Hunt” and “Blood Bool” are admittedly light on narrative. Sure, things happen, but much of these episodes are dedicated to filling in the gaps we have in our characters and their history.

We don’t need to know much about the now, simply because the past is where the secrets lie. The seemingly wild goose chase that Scott is sending Lisey on from beyond the grave? Each episode offers a glimpse into what it will lead to, moving us through not only clues but scenes from a marriage that led us to now. And then there’s Lisey’s sister Amanda (Joan Allen), her suicidal behavior, and the catatonic state she falls into; deceptively present until the series pivots into the world its dead author inhabited and all the “magical surrealism” (as one character puts it) of the story.

“It’s about trauma” feels like an overused concept, but there is something about the way the show travels between past and present, and between reality and the dream world of the Boo’ya Moon, that promises a unique take on it from someone whose work has a history of exploring the theme. Nothing is particularly terrifying when it comes to the show, but individual scenes are intriguing in a weird way. Something like Scott and Amanda exchanging water from the Boo’ya Moon pool feels ripped out of a Richard Kelly film (which, in turn, are works arguably inspired by King himself), and the implication that something evil lies within the dreamscape, something called a “Long Boy” that growls, provides the series a sense of mystery that isn’t overbearing.

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The fragmentation of the past, by contrast, doesn’t play out as quite so mysterious; Larraín cuts up memories and matches his editing to Lisey’s mental state, piecing things together without actually wanting to invest in them. While much of the episodes seem invested in Scott, it is still Lisey’s Story; the show confidently understands that it should formally match the way its protagonist is picking up the pieces herself. The camera doesn’t lie, it simply withholds, the same way that Lisey’s memories and knowledge of her husband’s life are seemingly withheld from her.

Illustration for article titled Pablo Larraín proves an ideal match for Stephen King in Lisey’s Story premiere
Photo: Apple TV Plus
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“Every marriage keeps its own secrets,” Scott Landon is quoted as saying at the very start of the show, pairing perfectly with the opening credits that precede it. They show us gorgeously presented marionettes of Scott and Lisey, at first implying that the former is lost to her and existing in the pages of his stories and objects from the past, and then showing how engaging with that past is the only thing that will free her from the strings of control, from whatever mystery lies beyond. This is, admittedly, just something of an interpretation based on those credits and the two episodes that have aired, but the show practically begs one to engage with it on that level: vibing with its themes and visuals instead of treating it like a puzzle box that needs to be solved.

Few things are grounded in the present, or in reality, and those bits are mostly based around showing how Lisey interacts with others. The chemistry Moore has with Jennifer Jason Leigh as her sister Darla is immediately noticeable, as is the energy they put into selling their mix of worry and exhaustion for their ill sister. Ron Cephas Jones offers less intimidation than one would expect from a perceived villain, clarified quickly by the second episode revealing his relative innocence in the situation, or at least his excuse for it.

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But this brings us to Dooley, the seemingly true villain of Lisey’s Story, played by Dane DeHaan. It’s hard not to spend every moment watching DeHaan’s performance without being a little baffled at what the performer is going for in depicting an unhinged fan willing to do anything for an author who he knows seemingly everything about. We all know that King is interested in exploring toxic fandom in his work, Misery’s Annie Wilkes being the prime example, but Dooley is something else.

Where Wilkes felt betrayed by an author’s decisions in life, her emotional reactions fueled by the notion that she knows best, Dooley is framed as more of an obsessive machine that can spit out useless trivia about every facet of his favorite author’s life. He doesn’t believe he is entitled to the work of this man, but that the world is and Lisey isn’t. Lisey couldn’t understand her husband like he could, or like any of his other fans could, and, thus, they deserve his unpublished work more than anything else. Everything about an author belongs to his devoted fans is the implication and King makes it clear he’s in the wrong from the get-go.

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The thing about DeHaan here that strikes me as odd is the oft deadpan presentation of his villainy. There’s something almost camp to how he threatens those around him, glaring like a psychopath with no soul behind his eyes, and doing everything from filming himself with a cardboard cutout of Scott Landon to capturing and microwaving a bird before stuffing it into a mailbox. King and Larraín both seem to be getting a kick out of indulging in these drawn-out scenes, including even sillier ones like Dooley whipping out a pizza cutter and slicing up his take-out in his car, but that’s where I start to question what level of self-awareness the show is going for.

“My husband would have called that an ominous plot twist,” Lisey says outright in “Blood Bool” and that’s the kind of line that feels a little too on-the-nose. Or when the show offers a smash cut to Moore slicing a man’s face open with a shovel after winkingly saying “I do have something that worked before” about her options for self-defense. But then there’s the sincerity of King adapting himself that challenges that notion, often using his writing to unnecessarily clarify what the visuals already offer. It’s in keeping words like “babyluv”, “Boo’ya Moon”, “bool”, and “Long Boy” without realizing they make some of the more serious beats a little harder to swallow when said aloud. If the show has any true offense, it’s when Larraín allows composer Clark to go heavy on the discordant beats. Some pieces complement scenes with a satisfying discomfort, but when he leans into the horror vibes, it feels like a pale imitation of what Brian Reitzell brought to Hannibal.

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Anything can happen when it comes to a Stephen King novel, so I’ll hold off on further speculation based on these episodes, but “Blood Hunt” and “Blood Bool” show that Lisey’s Story might be the right way to adapt King. It’s the kind of indulgent series that makes the streaming era so interesting, allowing an author themselves to get the time they want to tell their story the way they want, for better or worse. And, boy, I can’t wait to watch more.

Stray observations

  • Howdy! This is my first time stepping into the world of The A.V. Club recaps and I’m writing about one of my favorite filmmakers and one of my favorite authors. So, you know, it’s as nerve-wracking as it is exciting, but I hope everyone enjoys watching and reading along with me.
  • I have just started revisiting Lisey’s Story for the first time since its release and comparing book to show, so I’ll try refraining from discussing it too much in recaps and focus on these things down here. First and foremost: why did King think it was a good idea to change Dooley’s fake name from Zack McCool to Jim Dandy? Come on, man. You had a good thing going.
  • My favorite exchange between Lisey and Darla, played with exquisite comic timing, has to be: “Our suicidal sister has a gun and you didn’t tell me?” / “Well, she’s a cutter. She’s not a shooter.” Jennifer Jason Leigh is a genius honestly. We need her to pop up in everything.
  • When Dooley is going on and on in the library about the greatness of the book that inspired Scott Landon as a writer and then they reveal it to be none other than Stephen King’s own Charlie The Choo-Choo (a story from his Dark Tower series that was later published on its own), I laughed out loud because that is precisely the level of meta indulgence I expect from him as a creator.
  • Please don’t kill me for the abundance of filmmakers I will be citing throughout this show. At least I didn’t call it Lynchian. For the record, it’s not Lynchian. Some shots do, however, have an air of Malick in their aesthetic and in mirroring his playfulness with cutting between any given moment and a memory long past.
  • Speaking of film references, how is Darius Khondji such a great and versatile cinematographer? I would simply like to note that this and Too Old To Die Young feel like they actually are “cinematic” as opposed to a lot of shows that get that label.
  • “Did you just fucking call me Yoko?” is a great line, not just because hearing Moore deliver it rocks, but because it’s another example of someone outright saying fans who think Yoko Ono ruined The Beatles are idiots (much like folks who think Courtney Love killed Kurt Cobain are dummies).
  • Even though I think it’s a great creative decision when switching from novel to show, there’s a tiny part of me that wishes they’d kept in all of Lisey’s attempts to side-step cussing by using “smuck” instead of “fuck.”
  • “If he shows up, I’ll clock him” is the most Nancy Donovan line that ever existed outside of 30 Rock and I’m almost mad Moore didn’t say it in her Boston accent.
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