A simple yet proud rancher in the year 1922 conspires to murder his wife for financial gain, convincing his teenage son to participate.
Stephen King (story)
With the almost back-to-back releases of three Stephen King properties (IT, Gerald’s Game and now 1922), there seems to be a bit of a King renaissance happening.
Based on a novella out of the Full Dark, No Stars collection by King, 1922 is good – but it never quite makes its quota to earn a label of “great”… unless you’re talking about the lead performance from The Mist’s Thomas Jane.
I’m always wrestling with the term “slow burn”. Obviously, it’s all subjective in this business, but slow burns are tough to achieve, no matter who you are or what your preferences may be.
1922 doesn’t quite make this slow burn engaging enough. It’s interesting to be sure, but it never pulls itself up out of what I might term “ordinary”. I don’t know if it’s the source material or the adaptation we see here – but it just missed the mark.
Don’t get me wrong – the film has plenty of noteworthy positives – but I didn’t walk out of the theatre with a coveted “wow” reaction.
Here’s the lowdown:
Wilfred James (Deep Blue Sea’s Thomas Jane) and his deeply estranged wife Arlette (Molly Parker of House of Cards) live on a vast farm in the plains of Nebraska. Their son Henry “Hank” (Dylan Schmid) helps Wilfred to eek out their living as corn-farmers. Arlette has recently inherited another 100 acres of adjacent land after her father has died. She wants to sell the land to some well-paying, but shady land investors and move to the big city (Omaha). Wilfred refuses, and goes on a tour-de-force of manipulation to convince his son that they need to stay on this farm, regardless of cost – and I ain’t talkin’ money.
The easy highlight of 1922 is the performance from Thomas Jane. He takes a page out of the book of Billy Bob Thornton’s “Karl” in Sling Blade – taking on a sort of mumbling, soft-spoken man. But while Thornton’s Carl is something of a softee (when not using his beloved sling blade, of course) Jane brings a deeply disturbed, but surprising calm to Wilfred. Wilfred’s a man who wants the best for his son.
While I’ve not yet read the novella myself, my husband has done so twice. And I think the highest praise Jane could receive, is that the performance (per my husband) perfectly captures the character in the novella.
Jane’s biggest achievement, is that he is able to make Wilfred sympathetic – even in light of his despicable actions in the film. That’s not an easy thing to do – making an audience worry about or care for someone with such a horrible past. So kudos on that front.
Molly Parker doesn’t get a whole lot of screen-time, but she makes the most of it. Her best moment in the film comes about just before the story’s big incident – when she drunkenly and graphically talks to Henry about girls and Henry’s awakening sexuality. Once the big event in the film occurs – we’ll still see Parker – but in a very different context.
Nearly matching Jane’s performance is that of young Dylan Schmid at the only James’ child. Henry is clearly obsessed with and enamored by his father. And Schmid brings that innocent idolatry to the fore as young Henry. You’ll feel a bit sorry for Henry’s blind faith in his father (the relationship is on the verge of brain-washing) and that’s a credit to Schmid as much as it is the story itself. His reactions to what he and his father do are always authentic. And when Henry begins to fully realize what they’ve done, his confusion and unknown emotions toward his father (anger, resentment) are all perfectly captured in Schmid’s performance. Basically, you’ll be saying to yourself, “This poor kid”.
The film has some pretty harsh moments (apparently very toned down from the novella – per my husband) including cows and rats. Perhaps it’s my own preferences coming to the fore, but I was more concerned/disturbed by what happens to the animals, than I was about the human characters.
There is a wrap-around story which involves Wilfred – and these moments were some of my favorites in the film. But it’s the sequence following Wilfred’s tumble down the basement stairs which will live on in my memory – and which held the most power in the whole film. Nicely shot and heartbreaking for the character.
The film dives deep into the eventual results of karmic justice. Wilfred can never escape from what he does – and everything around him suffers because of this one choice. In that, there’s an interesting examination about the idea that we are a product of the choices (good or bad) that we make in our lives. And with that, the story clearly draws inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart – while simultaneously throwing some scurrying rodents into the mix, a la H.P. Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls.
While Jane’s performance is the film’s highlight, the examination of marriage, loyalty and inner demons (one of King’s specialties, of course) are an easy draw into this world. Wilfred is a selfish man and this self-serving behavior will be his downfall. It’s a great character study, lifted up more by Jane’s solid acting work.
As you can guess from the title, the film is a period piece. And it’s always been my experience (regardless of my knowledge of period details – costumes, vehicles and the like) that if I don’t question things outright, then the production designers and folks in the art departments have succeeded. And 1922 definitely seems to get things right. Clothing, cars and buildings of the era are all properly intact.
Bottom line: 1922 looks good.
Again, the film as a whole is good, but never great. But if you’re judging solely on the performances – namely that of Thomas Jane – then it’s a clear winner.
I’d reckon Jane’s performance as this haunted and broken man, ranks as a career high for this busy actor. And that’s the real reason to check out 1922.
The film also stars recognizable faces Neal McDonough (Spielberg’s Minority Report) as Wilfred’s neighbor Harlan and Brian D’arcy James as Sheriff Jones.
1922 enjoyed its World Premiere at the 17th Annual Screamfest in Los Angeles and is now available on Netflix.