On cosmic comeuppance, depicting the dead, and the mundane morality play of 1922
Director: Zak Hilditch
Screenplay: Zak Hilditch, based on the novella by Stephen King
Starring: Thomas Jane, Molly Parker, Dylan Schmid, Kaitlyn Bernard, Neal McDonough and Brian d'Arcy James
Not rated / 1 hour, 42 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / Netflix
(out of four)
There's always a certain, for lack of a better word, unfairness in having a movie character who dies early on just to set other things in motion. That their primary utility is as a springboard to exploring other people's experiences and other people's pain is part of the bargain, but the weight of their intended significance - as a symbol, as a memory - is largely at the mercy of the fleeting moments they get on screen before their inexorable departure. To some films, the departed remain nothing more than a prop - something to (cheaply) motivate (or haunt) our main character, but with no real existence of his or her own.
When it's the main character doing the actual killing, the depiction of the dead compels closer scrutiny. In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) murders his wife. We know he's done wrong from the film's outset, set in the early years of the Depression, as a bearded, scraggly Wilfred stumbles into an old hotel and scribbles down his confession. Back in '22, he had a wife, a son, and 180 acres of farmland - 80 belonging to him, 100 to his wife. A disagreement over what to do with their shared land - keep it, or sell it all and move to the city - gets the wheels in Wilf's head turning. He hatches a plot to kill her, enlisting the cooperation of his hot-blooded teenage son, and does the deed in the dead of night. As he informs us in his confessional voiceover, he's been paying for this act ever since.
Despite the generally straightforward nature of the murder and its nasty motivations, the film - adapted by director Zak Hilditch from a Stephen King novella - isn't terribly confident in who Arlette James (Molly Parker) is supposed to be. Or, rather, was supposed to have been. And given that it's Wilf's reaction to her - to her desires, her actions, indeed the very woman he has grown to hate - that leads to the story's pivotal moment, and her death that permeates everything that comes after it, this is no small matter.
During the scenes in which we get to know her, and the James family as a whole, Arlette is depicted - by the script and by Parker's performance - in completely inconspicuous fashion. In personality and dress, she is every bit the image of the traditional Midwestern matriarch fortified by decades of Westerns and rural dramas. She practically blends into the scenery. As a character, she is reserved, gentle, self-possessed, intelligent. When she argues with Wilf over her intentions to sell the land, and her desire to move to the city, she comes across as reasonable and sincere.
But 1922 counts on one scene to alter our understanding of her. (Well, one scene and the way Wilf talks about her after that scene.) It's her last night alive. Wilf gets her defenses down - first by getting her drunk, then by convincing her he's finally agreed to let her have her way: sell the farm, move into town. She gets drunker, louder, bawdier, and when 14-year-old Henry (Dylan Schmid) joins them on the porch, she makes a few off-color remarks about his girlfriend before being carried inside and passing out.
This episode is framed as being what pushes Henry over the edge, convincing him to agree to his father's murderous intentions. But in conversation between father and son, the film goes further. Wilf talks about her as if her drunken performance - anomalous, as far as we can tell - is the norm. "That's just how she is." He and James talk about her as if there's an enduring understanding she's some sort of nasty, unpleasant, manipulative figure. That Wilf is simply trying to hoodwink an impressionable kid is one thing. But for us to accept that James would suddenly go along with a scheme to murder his mother, there has to be some kernel of truth to Wilf's argument, something that might cause a sense of lingering contempt to boil over.
Arlette's evening of drunkenness never gets into the bones of the character. It plays like, and feels like, a perfunctory plot-moving scene - and a pretty traditional one, at that. Getting a character drunk to either kill them or otherwise get them out of the way for a while - standard stuff. The film's claim that her behavior is supposed to make some lasting impression on Arlette as a person is ludicrous.
It's an instance of the movie and its script being at odds. I don't know whether or not she's written as a more abrasive character in King's book, but it certainly feels like she was conceived that way - and/or should have been conceived that way. Henry's complicity doesn't work without it. Perhaps, in his presentation of all but Arlette's final scene, Hilditch simply wanted to make sure the audience saw her in a positive, or at least neutral, light? Fine, but a disagreeable, coarse, domineering person is no more worthy of death than a kind, tender, pleasant one; as a matter of formula, and audience sympathies, movies naturally overlook this. But in this case, 1922 seems conflicted. It's told from Wilf's point-of-view, and these events are presumably filtered through his impression of his wife at that time. The movie has no need to be objective.
Her death follows the both of them for the rest of their days; she is Wilf's sin, his guilt, his comeuppance - but her only functional value is as a murdered object. The movie is too hesitant to contend with her on more direct, human terms.
The depiction of the characters as a whole is probably the film's biggest problem. They often seem to not be the people they're written to be, or explained as. That goes not just for Arlette but for Henry, who comes across as either dumb enough to be easily manipulated into high crimes, or lovestruck enough to commit them willingly. One supposed motivation is his blossoming romance with the neighbor girl Shannon Cotterie (Kaitlyn Bernard), but that relationship never comes to life on screen - which undermines, if not outright sabotages, a crucial narrative detour in the back half of the film.
For that matter, the father/son dynamic only really works in the abstract. Wilf's devotion to keeping his land - even if he has to kill to do so - is wrapped up in ideas of legacy. His identity as a man, he tells us, is inseparable from the land he owns and the work he does on it. But central to that is the man he makes out of his heir - passing on that land to his son as if it's his very DNA. He repeatedly insists that all of what he's done means nothing - and is for nothing - if he doesn't have James to give it to. At times he sounds an awful lot like a bumpkin Walter White.
It comes as no surprise that things get worse and worse for Wilf through the winter of '22 right on into '23. In moments there's a tragic beauty to his downfall - the house falling apart around him, the snowfall that envelops him, the barrenness of the land he killed for. And then there are the rats, burrowing into his psyche - following him everywhere, from the well to the barn to the very hotel where he writes his confession years later. Those rats that tore apart his wife's corpse will never stop coming for him, too.
There's a cosmic vengeance unfurling around Wilfred, but 1922 never achieves the religious or neo-Shakespearean sense of fate, curses and moral justice it's going for, nor the twisted irony and consequence of noir. Perhaps it's the narration - which doesn't so much get in Wilf's head as rigidly frame a narrative that doesn't necessarily require it - but it plays out instead as a rather pat, ordinary morality play. It's too easy, too simple. The story is handsomely staged and Jane's performance dutifully carries it, but the film itself never goes for the throat.