Lisey’s Story mixes psycho with silly in a very Stephen King-y episode [Apple TV+ review]

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Lisey's Story review
Julianne Moore and Clive Owen go to a strange place in this week's episode.
Photo: Apple TV+

Our widowed protagonist comes face to face with the bane of her existence in this week’s episode of Lisey’s Story, the Stephen King miniseries currently giving Apple TV+ a welcome shot of weird. Lisey must face some painful memories in order to avoid an even more painful future.

Lisey’s Story review: Episode 4, ‘Jim Dandy’

Lisey (played by Julianne Moore) finally meets Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan), her deceased husband’s biggest fan and her biggest problem. He kidnaps her, demands that she find the unwritten story her husband never published, and tortures her pretty nastily.

The trouble is, Lisey genuinely doesn’t know where the story is — or if indeed it actually exists. But she’s definitely aware the psychopathic Dooley isn’t going to be in the mood for logic when he comes back to finish the job.

The episode with Dooley sends Lisey down memory lane, remembering the time when her husband Scott Landon (Clive Owen) brought her to the dream world know as Boo’ya Moon. Back when Scott was alive, Lisey used to be able to travel to the realm he and his brother “created” when they were young to escape their abusive dad. Scott continued to learn the rules of the place all his life. However, there were still things he didn’t understand, which hints at it being more than simply a version of his imagination.

You know what this woman sees in front of her right now?

The Boo’ya Moon stuff this week is a bit of a comedown after the intensity of the torture scenes. Yes, Moore gives reminiscing her all (not an easy thing to sell). But a lot of what we see is her sitting in her backyard with a pained look on her face, while in flashbacks, Scott shows her the realm of demons and lost children.

That stuff verges on the silly this week in a way most King adaptations do. That’s a big letdown after the show’s very assured opening salvo, but it’s not enough to sink the enterprise. Especially because director Pablo Larraín then wraps it in an odd fantasy sequence involving a backyard soul concert that only Lisey can see.

Clearly Larraín is at least a little wary of how some of the fantasy stuff plays. If you let the audience sit in pure mechanics, there’s no reason to say they shouldn’t just be reading the book instead. So he quickly recovers and finds himself on sturdier ground just before he loses control. That alone was kind of thrilling, watching him realize he’s skating on thin ice and then seeing the pirouette recovery to get our (well … my) attention again.

So he could never answer yes or no

Lisey's Story review: Dane DeHaan plays Jim Dooley, a psycho focused on Lisey.
Dane DeHaan plays Jim Dooley, a psycho who means trouble for Lisey.
Photo: Apple TV+

It’s always been a little comical to me that Stephen King’s conception of evil (and also language) is stuck sometime between 1955 and 1967. Which means to him, rockabilly music and hot-rodders are still among the most pressing evils in our society.

Yes, in a way he’s not wrong to highlight the ways in which American society hasn’t essentially progressed beyond the values established during the period of Jim Crow legislation. But his focus does occasionally lead to bathetic sights like zombie Elvis impersonators and the like.

In his strong portrayal of the psycho Dooley, DeHaan seems to recognize that there’s an inherent disparity between his character as written and a sense of psychological realism. That’s something that someone like director Larraín would have insisted on even if DeHaan weren’t an actor of the Marlon Brando/James Dean school. (DeHaan actually played Dean in the 2015 film Life.) He is, though, so together he and Larraín build Dooley a sturdier chassis.

DeHaan plays Dooley very much like the shut-in teenager who never grew up. But he gets these moments of abject behavior (thrashing to a Hank Williams song, cutting Lisey with a wheel knife) that capture this lost-ness. He’s between realities and times, someone who can’t — and so won’t — make sense of the world he occupies.

This strategy works more often than it doesn’t. (As good as something like George Romero’s King adaptation The Dark Half remains, its biggest problem is Timothy Hutton giving a much more stylized version of this performance that tackles the horror writer’s version of counterculture evil too literally.)

If Lisey’s Story had just ended with DeHaan again instead of front-loading the episode with him, it could have recovered even more spectacularly this week.

Lisey’s Story on Apple TV+

New episodes of Lisey’s Story arrive on Apple TV+ on Fridays.

Rated: TV-MA

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.