In 1995, Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) works as a domestic servant on Little Tall Island in Maine. Dolores has a struggle with her elderly, paralyzed employer Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt) in her mansion, after which Vera falls down the staircase. Dolores ransacks the kitchen and is then caught by a mailman as she stands over Vera with a rolling pin, apparently intending to kill her. Vera dies and the police begin a murder investigation.
Dolores' daughter, Selena St. George (Leigh), a successful New York City journalist who battles depression and substance abuse, arrives in town to support her mother, despite her own doubts about Dolores' innocence. Dolores insists she did not kill her employer, but finds little sympathy as the entire town believes she murdered her husband, Joe St. George (David Strathairn), almost twenty years earlier. Some of the town's inhabitants harass her by vandalizing her home, taunting her in the street, and driving by her and house screaming at her. Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), who was the chief detective in her husband's murder case, is determined to put Dolores away for life.
Selena also believes Dolores killed her father and has not spoken to her mother in over a decade. In 1975, Joe was an abusive alcoholic, and one night Dolores had threatened to kill him if he ever harmed her again. Selena, then 13 years old, was unaware her mother was being abused. Dolores went to work as a housemaid for millionaire Vera Donovan in order to raise enough money to pay for Selena's education, and had gone to the bank to withdraw her money so she and Selena could flee Joe's abuse. The plan backfired, however, when the bank notified Dolores that Joe stole the money from Selena's savings account.
Dolores says Vera threw herself down the staircase and begged Dolores to put her out of her misery. Mackey refuses to believe her, and reveals that Vera has left her entire fortune to Dolores. Mackey informs them the will is eight years old, which nearly convinces Selena her mother is guilty. Dolores eventually tells Selena that before he died, Dolores realized Joe was sexually abusing Selena, which Selena furiously denies. After a fierce argument, Selena storms out, leaving her mother to fend for herself.
Back in 1975, Dolores broke down and confessed Joe's abuses to Vera, who remained characteristically cold until Dolores mentioned that he was molesting Selena. Turning unusually sympathetic, Vera implied she killed her own late, unfaithful husband, Jack, and engineered it to look like an accident. Vera's confession formed a bond between the two women and convinced Dolores to take control of her situation. As a total solar eclipse approached, Dolores, who was pointedly given the rest of the day off by Vera, and the young Selena had an argument about Dolores' suspicions regarding Joe's sexual abuse. Selena fled home for the weekend to work at a hotel, where guests had flocked for the eclipse. Joe soon returned from working on a fishing boat, and Dolores offered him a bottle of Scotch to celebrate the eclipse. After Joe got drunk, Dolores revealed she knew he stole from Selena's account and molested his own daughter. Dolores provoked him into attacking her and falling down an old well, leaving him to die as he plunges to the stone bottom.
Selena hears this entire story on a tape left for her by Dolores, who had foreseen her departure. While on the ferry, Selena suddenly uncovers a repressed memory of her father forcing her to give him a handjob. Realizing her mother was telling the truth all along, Selena rushes back to Dolores as she is attending the coroner's inquest. As Mackey makes a case to be sent to a grand jury in an attempt to indict Dolores for murder, Selena tells him he has no admissible evidence, he is only doing this because of his personal vendetta against Dolores, and that despite an often stormy relationship, Vera and Dolores loved each other. Realizing Dolores would very likely be acquitted, Mackey reluctantly drops the charges. Dolores and Selena reconcile on the ferry wharf before Selena returns to New York.Kathy Bates as Dolores Claiborne
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Selena St. George
Ellen Muth as Young Selena
Taffara Jessica Stella Murray as 5-year-old Selena
Judy Parfitt as Vera Donovan
Christopher Plummer as Detective John Mackey
David Strathairn as Joe St. George
Eric Bogosian as Peter
John C. Reilly as Constable Frank Stamshaw
Bob Gunton as Mr. Pease
Roy Cooper as Magistrate
Wayne Robson as Sammy Marchant
Ruth Marshall as Secretary
Weldon Allen as Bartender
Tom Gallant as Searcher
Kelly Burnett as Jack Donovan
Dolores Claiborne was filmed in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Though typically classified as a drama and psychological thriller, some critics, such as Roger Ebert, have classified Dolores Claiborne as a horror film, while it has also been identified as a Gothic romance.
Film theorist Kirsten Thompson identifies the film as a melodrama, "produced by the repression of specific traumas, [in this case] domestic violence and incest." According to Martha McCaughey and Neal King, the film's use of flashbacks suggest a specific narrative point of view when considering the film's themes of abuse and incest between Dolores, as well as Selena and Joe: "That all the flashbacks save one belong to Dolores tells us that not only are we watching her story; it also tells us of the unavailability of the past to Selena, and of the displacement and repression forced into play by the girl's experience of incest."
The flashback scene in which Selena recalls her father's forcing her to masturbate him on the ferry has been particularly noted by critics: "Here, Selena and the viewer alike come finally to see Joe's transgressions and, by implication, to understand the truth of Dolores' tale. Throughout this scene the perspective offered by the camera remains firmly focused on the reactions of the victim of the sexual crime."
Dolores Claiborne has been cited as a "self-consciously feminist" film that "combines the melodramatic impulse with the investigative structure of a noir crime thriller and a contemporary feminist consciousness." The film has also been read as an example of a maternal melodrama that features an "idealized mother-figure" who sacrifices the needs of her own for others. In the book Screening Genders, it is noted that one scholar considered Dolores Claiborne and Stage Door (1937) to be the only "truly feminist" films made in Hollywood, in that they "don't cop out at the end."
Dolores Claiborne received mostly positive reviews from critics; it currently holds an 82% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 34 reviews with an average rating of 6.6. The film also has a rating of 62 on metacritic citing generally favorable reviews.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times called it "a vivid film that revolves around Ms. Bates's powerhouse of a performance... Only after the film has carefully laid the groundwork for a story of old wounds and violent mishaps does the anticlimactic truth become apparent." Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and praised the performances of Bates and Leigh, saying: "This is a horror story, all right, but not a supernatural one; all of the elements come out of such everyday horrors as alcoholism, wife beating, child abuse and the sin of pride."
Entertainment Weekly, however, gave the film a negative review, awarding it a D+ rating and saying: "This solemnly ludicrous ”psychological” thriller is like one of Hollywood’s old-hag gothics turned into a therapeutic grouse-a-thon – it’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte for the Age of Oprah."
The movie debuted at number three for the week of March 26, 1995 with $5,721,920. It went on to make $24,361,867 domestically. It ranks as the 15th highest-grossing film based on a Stephen King novel. It ranks as the 17th highest on the same list adjusted for inflation.
Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh were nominated for the best actress and best supporting actress award at the 22nd Saturn Awards. Ellen Muth also won the Tokyo International Film Festival Award for Best Supporting Actress.