In a deep, gravelly drawl that sounds like it was taken straight out of a mid-60s western, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) narrates over an image of his young son taking a truck out through the cornfields, re-adjusting his hat in the heat and fanning his tanned and weathered face. He proclaims, “In 1922, man’s pride was man’s land. And so was his son.”
“1922” is the newest Stephen King adaptation to come out in 2017, quite the banner year for the prolific horror author. Directed by Zak Hilditch and starring Thomas Jane, Molly Parker and Dylan Schmid, “1922” debuted on Netflix on October 20. It is based on one of King’s novellas from his collection of short stories, “Full Dark, No Stars.”
Rather than the evil-multidimensional-clown-meets-80s-kids-on-bikes story of “It,” the sci-fi thriller of “The Dark Tower” or the one-room mind escape of “Gerald’s Game,” “1922” tells the small-scale, self-contained story of a damaged family and the consequences of destructive and selfish tendencies—in a rather realistic way for a work by Stephen King. Heavily pervasive in “1922” are multiple themes that range from guilt over past events to the trauma of a bad marriage, emasculation and the way that one decision can haunt you to the end of your days.
Thomas Jane masterfully plays Wilfred “Wilf” James, a proud Nebraskan farmer whose only loyalty is to his land. After the build-up of years of arguments and financial disputes with his headstrong wife Arlette (Molly Parker), she finally threatens to leave with his son Henry (Dylan Schmid) and sell the 100 acres left to her. Wilf begins scheming about how to kill her and convince Henry to help him.
After lying to Arlette about agreeing to move to the city with her, she proceeds to get drunk in celebration and make crude remarks about Henry’s girlfriend. As she lies incapacitated on the bed, Wilf reminds his son that they will be sending her to heaven. Ever reluctant, Henry does his job and holds his mother down as Wilf stabs her, poorly and messily, over and over again, most definitely not giving her the quick death he promised his son in a visceral and rather bloody scene. He dumps her body—against Henry’s wishes—down a dry well, where the rats soon get to her mauled and grisly body.
After Arlette’s murder and its subsequent cover-up, “1922” now turns its focus on one man and his son’s sanity essentially rotting away. We see the repercussions of a horrible act and how it can weigh on one’s mind to the extent that everything else becomes meaningless. The overwhelming guilt associated with the awful murder consumes Wilf’s life and dashes Henry’s dreams and plans for the future.
The complexity of Wilf’s character is one of the highlights of the film. He is much deeper and darker than the hard-faced but kindly (when he’s not stabbing his wife) ultimate man’s man, dressed in worn denim overalls. Thomas Jane doesn’t play Wilf as simple-minded or stupid, which is the way this type of character is usually portrayed.
He’s extremely intelligent, always one step ahead of the sheriff and his wife’s lawyer. He acknowledges his conniving nature. He knows what he wants, and knows what he has to do to get it, although it leaves him paranoid and pathetic in the inevitable end.
The faded color grade and high-pitched violin that make up most of the soundtrack for the film creates a taut and suspenseful atmosphere. Simple and not-so-scary scenes accompanied with a screeching string score are innately grimace-inducing, while the shudder-worthy scares include the lingering spirit of the now-decomposing Arlette haunting Wilf, accompanied by hordes of crazed rats.
The film’s pacing slows down once the second act hits. With a run time of an hour and 40 minutes, “1922” can feel stretched out, and the pacing suffers slightly. It does, however, capture the narrative quite clearly, so the message successfully hits home.
“In the end,” Wilf narrates with remorse, as the rotting bodies of Shannon, Arlette and Henry descend on him with the same knife he had used previously, “We all get caught.”
Rachel Walman can be reached at [email protected]