Written by: Stephen King (novella), Zak Hilditch (screenplay)
Directed by: Zak Hilditch
Starring: Thomas Jane, Molly Parker, and Dylan Schmid |
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I can't pray now, or ever again. I think if I got down on my knees God would strike me dead. I hope there is no god. I imagine all murderers hope there isn't, because if there's no heaven, then there's no hell."
It’s rare to call any of Stephen King’s work “conventional.” Just about everything he’s ever written bears the idiosyncrasies of his wild imagination, and very few of his tales unfold in a straight line. Instead, they tend to zig and zag through bizarre concepts before dwelling on an unfathomable, Lovecraftian sense of otherworldly dread. Every now and then, though, he does envision some straightforward savagery in the order of 1922, a bleak, haunting little number about greed, murder, and regret recently adapted for the screen by Zak Hilditch. Released quietly to Netflix amidst the din of other, more high-profile King adaptations last year, 1922 is appropriately pitched to a low-key, with Hilditch doing his best to capture the novella’s quietly unsettling descent into madness.
We know the ending—or at least something close to it—right off the bat, as Wilfred “Wilf” James (Thomas Jane) shambles into a hotel room in Omaha. Appearing to be a haggard, somewhat elderly man, he begins to pen a letter of confession about his younger—but no more happier—days as a farmer in 1922, when he lived upon a huge acreage of land with his wife Arlette (Molly Parker) and their teenaged son, Henry (Dylan Schmid). Where Wilf is a born and bred country boy who invests everything—including his own sense of manhood—into the farm life, Arlette has grown bored with it and wants to move to the city. Because she technically owns all of the land due to inheritance, she controls the family’s fate—unless Wilf takes matters into his own callous hands, of course. After manipulating Henry and exploiting the boy’s blossoming relationship with a neighboring girl (Kaitlyn Bernard), he convinces his son to hatch a plan to murder Arlette so the two can secure their land (and livelihoods) for themselves, however savagely. While their murder is horrifically, gruesomely successful, it’s the beginning of the end for Wilf and Henry, a couple of damned souls now unwittingly hitched to a perpetual downward spiral.
1922 immediately has a different feel from a lot of King’s work: less Lovecraftian and more Poe by way of Steinbeck, it forges an indelible dust bowl gothic sensibility. Hilditch initially depicts Wilf’s patch of land just as the steely-eyed farmer himself describes it: as a sun-soaked heaven on earth, teeming with golden cornfields swaying under a bright blue sky. As Wilf explains it to Henry, this land is worth every drop of blood that will soil their hands: indeed, it’d be a sin to abandon this life that God has so clearly ordained for them, and Ben Richardson’s photography is suitably blissful—at least until the homestead slowly becomes a crucible of horror for this father and son duo. Soon after they commit their horrific deed, Will and Henry seem to be perpetually soaked in sweat, as their guilt seems to physically manifest in beads on their body, even as they try to coolly conceal their crime to the authorities.
Even though the frame narrative provides a hint that they do successfully evade those authorities, a suffocating fatalism guides 1922. It first seeps in around the edges, as Hilditch has that gilded pastoral aesthetic drain away in favor of a creeping gloominess. As Wilf’s life especially spirals out of reach, his former sanctuary becomes the rustic analogue to Poe’s "House of Usher": desolate, crumbling, its lone inhabitant slowly being driven mad by visions of his dead wife and the rats that may or may not be swarming around the house ever since her gruesome demise. On the page, this is pretty standard—if not downright derivative—stuff, but Hilditch finds some vitality in it, primarily through his impressive visuals and the almost otherworldly aesthetic he embraces as Wilf’s mind deteriorates. By the time we see this broken down farmer slumped on the floor, covered in the snow that’s falling through the whole in his roof as his only companion—a lone cow that’s shacked up in the house with him—it feels as if we’ve wandered into some bizarre fairy tale.
Obviously, a story in this manner lives and dies by its protagonist, and, while its story details are certainly macabre enough to warrant interest, Jane is a tremendous center of gravity for the proceedings. At first, you’re not quite sure how to take this performance, which finds Jane affecting a curious accent that’s somewhere between Fred Gwynne in Pet Sematary and Jeff Bridges's recent turn towards a grizzled, guttural drawl. It’s initially even a little off-putting, almost as if Jane is leaning too far into the character’s quirkiness without worrying about the substance. Eventually, however, this bizarre performance works, especially once Jane’s square-jawed poise begins to crumble under the weight of Wilf’s guilt and regret. That accent never withers, but you sense that the man who seems as he’s been forged from hellfire and brimstone is wholly unprepared to face the actual hell he’s made for himself. With Jane’s naturally soulful charisma, Wilf becomes a tragic figure in the process, one who is certainly deserving of his fate yet draws the audience’s sympathy as they encounter the nightmares of his damaged brain.
In the Poe tradition, it’s never confirmed if Wilf—who is nothing if not an unreliable narrator—is haunted literally or figuratively, leaving the supernatural elements ambiguous. Again, a pretty standard conceit, albeit one that has some interesting embellishments here: in the King tradition, 1922 wanders off a bit with a subplot involving Henry and his girlfriend, who become a pair of outlaws, throwing Wilf’s life even further into chaos and opening the door for some gnarly, grisly effects work. Whether or not some supernatural force is at work here soon seems immaterial: what’s most pertinent is that Wilf and his son meet a horrific fate, both psychologically and physically. Those swarming rats represent both a ravenous guilt and an almost preternatural force of karmic retribution, eating away at both the conscience and the flesh of these men.
It makes for a rickety ride, as those later narrative developments do feel like a strange, almost random aside before the final scene nicely re-centers 1922 as an intimate, macabre parable. With is rustic aesthetic and faint evangelical undertones, it’s somewhat reminiscent of Frailty, which puts 1922 in some fine company in addition to its King adaptation companions. Of the most recent lot, it’s perhaps best described as the most unassuming of the bunch, one that just flew under the radar with a sort of quiet competence that doesn’t command the attention of high profile stuff like It or The Dark Tower (the latter of which garnered attention for all the wrong reasons). 1922 is rather content to be a moody, unsettling work that reminds us that King adaptations can come in an assortment of shapes and sizes, but are often best enjoyed when Thomas Jane is involved.
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