With Lisey’s Story, Apple TV+ officially enters the Stephen King business, a step every streaming service must eventually take. The new miniseries, based on King’s novel of the same name, just so happens to boast an astonishing pedigree. So the inevitable move reads less like calculation and more like certainty for once.
This is a miniseries that, at least initially, looks like it’s firing on all cylinders.
Lisey’s Story review
Lisey (played by Julianne Moore) is alone. Her husband, genre author Scott Landon (Clive Owen) is dead. Her sister Amanda (Joan Allen) has gone mad after her husband remarried. And her only friend, her other sister Darla (Jennifer Jason Leigh) isn’t sure she’s up to being there in Lisey’s hour of need.
A literature professor named Dashmiel (Ron Cephas Jones) keeps hounding her about the unfinished work her husband left behind. Indeed, he is so desperate he hired a guy named Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan) to do some digging.
Of course, what Dashmiel didn’t quite reckon with was that Dooley was insane. He’s possessed by some bizarre delusion that Landon’s work was a kind of gateway to another dimension. But now it’s too late to call off Dooley. And the closer he gets to Lisey, the more reality seems to be closing in on itself.
Bringing a Stephen King novel to the screen
Nearly the entirety of Stephen King’s catalog has been adapted at some point or other, both liberally and faithfully. And yet there are still things that haven’t yet made their way to the big and/or small screen. Someone once asked the horror master what he wanted to see adapted that hadn’t yet been optioned and he answered, Lisey’s Story.
It’s not hard to see why. It’s the tale of a King-like author’s demise, and the tangled web he leaves his loved ones. Certainly there’s a decent amount of personal baggage in the story. But then most King stories had a lot of their author in them.
So what makes this different? It’s about an author like King after he’s no longer around to arrange his affairs and wonder how he’s being appraised. That’s pretty personal.
… with a crack creative team
It should mean something to fans that King wrote the teleplays for all eight episodes of the Apple TV+ miniseries. That’s a rare thing for him, something he hasn’t done since the disastrous Rose Red in 2002. King’s taste in adaptations of his own work is notoriously unreliable, so there’s reason to suspect he was off on a wild tangent here.
Khondji is one of the greatest photographers alive, the man who shot Se7en, My Blueberry Nights, The Immigrant and Uncut Gems. Once an absurdly painstaking practitioner of celluloid cinematography, he now brings a classical definition to his digital work.
His photography emotes, strange as it may be to think about. It almost cries; it’s like a particularly mournful song played on a violin. He was just the right man to collaborate with the experimentally minded Larraín, a man who’s spent the last decade turning cinema into a crooked mirror held up to fascism.
Director Pablo Larraín is a perfect pick
Larraín broke out with the blunt, slow cinema objet d’art Tony Manero, in which a serial killer sees himself in John Travolta’s self-styled disco hero from Saturday Night Fever. Ever since then, Larraín has been slowly working his way through the tempestuous relationship between the United States and South America (largely his home country of Chile), one crowd-displeaser at a time.
In 2012’s No, ad execs use American commercial language to try and sell people on a referendum. In his career-best film, Neruda, American noir provides the template for a cat-and-mouse game between a famous communist and a detective out to quell a revolution. In Jackie, Larraín treats Jackie Onassis like America treated Eva Perón.
It’s been very edifying watching him become a reliable figure in art cinema (his Ema was an honest-to-god event among cinephiles last year). He’s good at every kind of arthouse staple. He can do brutal dark comedy, traditional entertainment and for-real art.
Lisey’s Story falls somewhere in between. It’s an eight-chapter odyssey, specially written by America’s most famous author, that lets Larraín paint like Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s one of the only times I’ve ever seen a director take an emotion-forward approach to a Stephen King work. And it’s great.
From Maine with love
The first two episodes of Lisey’s Story exist to set up the major players. But more than that, they showcase the register in which the remaining six episodes will transpire. Scott Landon’s whole thing is that he seemed to invent his stories in a kind of childish nether realm.
Because Lisey’s Story has in Larraín an actual visual stylist, instead of the usual bunch of journeymen who get assigned to King’s headier books, that realm has a real tangible exciting otherness to it. Larraín treats the world of imagination, where so much of the show transpires, like something out of fellow Chilean Raúl Ruiz‘s cinema of diaristic abstraction (complete with child pirates, a Ruiz motif).
The montage here has Larraín’s typical sleekness, getting us into Lisey’s headspace with an exciting and narcotic ease. He sets up the parameters of the show’s journey effortlessly, and it’s deeply cool to enter this place.
I’ve been watching King adaptations since I was a kid; this is one of the only ones I’ve seen that seems to both understand why people like his writing and see through the extreme literary nature of his work to the stuff that works on screen. Lisey’s Story showcases uniformly strong work from everybody, especially Moore in the title role. Like Meryl Streep, despite being a beloved American icon, Moore needs careful direction to reign in her wilder instincts. Here she’s perfect; all business.
I cannot wait to dig into the rest of this season. Lisey’s Story appears to be something special.
Lisey’s Story on Apple TV+
Lisey’s Story premieres Friday on Apple TV+. New episodes arrive on Fridays.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.