Director: Zak Hilditch
Writer(s): Zak Hilditch, Stephen King (Short Story)
Release Date: October 20, 2017
Another in the increasingly long list of films adapted from the worryingly bizarre mind of Stephen King, who has had such a wealth of coverage on these pages over the last few months that I’m tempted to have him pay our domain fees. This latest, another Netflix Original after the rather good Gerald’s Game, is based on the novella of the same name published in his 2010 collection, Full Dark, No Stars, and concerns a proud, simple rancher who conspires, along with his teenage son, to murder his wife and dump her down the property’s well.
Why am I not surprised?
It isn’t quite what you’re thinking. Of course it continues a longstanding tradition of King’s writing featuring violence against women, but then again King’s writing features violence again men, children and animals, too. Where 1922 differs is that it lacks the leering, sex-crime quality of the fates that King often visits upon his female characters; in fact, if there’s anything truly terrifying about this film, which opts to unnerve and unsettle rather than thrill, then it’s the mundanity of it all. Its antihero prioritises his own wants and financial gain over his wife’s, but his wife is so smug, callous and selfish that you kind of see his point.
What are the particulars?
Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) is a farmer in Nebraska who owns a fair amount of generational land. His wife, Arlette (Molly Parker), owns her own land; a big swathe of it adjoining her husband’s, which she inherited and intends to sell to a livestock company in order to open a dress shop in the city. If she does that, though, Wilf’s land will no longer be farmable, and the parochial lifestyle suits him. “Cities,” he insists, “are for fools.” What to do, then, when Arlette declares that she’s going to sell her 100 acres whether he likes it or not, and that she’s going to take their son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), with her to Omaha. Wilfred concocts a scheme of his own: to kill her.
Seems a bit rash.
It does, and that speaks to the challenge of crafting a narrative around a man who plots to murder his wife in her sleep. That Arlette is so unlikeable is only part of the solution; writer-director Zak Hilditch also manages to keep us invested by teasing an astonishing performance from Thomas Jane, who offers a portrait of a rural man that is studied, layered and serious. 1922 doesn’t rely on the cheap and easy drama of local police involvement; there’s no threat to Wilfred’s freedom here besides the internal walls he erects to compartmentalise his guilt and regret.
So it’s a psychological thriller?
Very much so, and a slow-burning one at that. Wilf’s gradual descent into madness is given a lot of time and consideration, and it’s bolstered immeasurably by Jane’s deeply committed performance. You never get the sense that this is an evil or sadistic man; he’s a stubborn, naïve one who committed a heinous act because he felt as though he had no other choice. In his mind, murdering his wife in her bed would be the end of his troubles, and the start of prosperity for him and his son, who he evidently cares for deeply. This is important, as without these central thought processes and relationships, there’s nothing else to the film. You have to buy into Wilf’s logic to be sold on his subsequent torments.
Ah, torments. That’s more like it.
Again, not what you’re thinking. The narrative treats Arletta’s murder as the inciting incident and builds the rest of the film around the fallout, but by the usual Stephen King standards, Wilf is beset by tame, personal demons that are never explicitly otherworldly. He’s plagued by a pack of ravenous rats, and their gnashing curiosity makes for some unpleasant imagery, but this is a reserved story, with most of King’s usual excesses boiled away. It’s still somewhat typical of the author, with all his familiar themes of martial disharmony and mounting madness, but it’s very much an unsentimental look at one man’s penance for his cruelty.
Won’t that disappoint people, though?
1922 is a lesser-known King story, so there’s a chance that those who’ve never heard of it but are clamouring for more of the writer’s trademark sadism might feel as though it doesn’t do quite enough. And if the film does have a flaw, that’s probably it. It’s well-made and exceedingly well-acted, but it does feel somewhat slight, and nothing about it strikes me as being particularly memorable. It gets under your skin in the moment, helped considerably by ferociously effective sound design, but for all the scraping and scratching of those bloodthirsty rats they’re easy to shake off.
The ending suffers from a lack of the subtlety that’s displayed elsewhere, and it doesn’t have the kind of haunting resonance that it’s clearly looking for, but at the very least it resists the temptation to get as convoluted as King’s stories often do.
1922 is an effective, chilling bit of work that boasts a revelatory lead performance and a compelling, gradual erosion of a man’s psyche. It won’t leave any lasting trauma, but you’ll feel its heavy, clammy atmosphere press against your skin for as long as it lasts.
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