As someone who used to be a huge Stephen King fan, and is currently going through a kind of King renaissance thanks to Audible, I’m finding both why I liked King so much in my teens, and why I didn’t as I grew older: in terms of premise and plot I like King just fine, but when it comes to characters and exposition, his prose gets drowned, submerged as if wearing concrete shoes. 1922, a Netflix-released adaptation of the story in King’s Full Dark, No Stars collection feels pretty similar, but this time it’s the pace at which the story unfolds.
Starring Thomas Jane (10 years after his memorable turn in The Mist, the best cinematic adaptation of a King work – in my opinion), 1922 is the story of a Wilfred James, a taciturn Nebraska farmer who schemes to manipulate his son into helping him kill and do away with his more free-spirited wife Arlette (played by Molly Parker – Dexter, House of Cards), when she reveals that she wants a divorce so she can be free to move to Omaha, and plans to take their son, Henry, with her. Once the deed is done, the guilt drives a wedge between him and Henry (Dylan Schmid), and plagues Wilfred with visions of his dead wife, accompanied by a rat infestation. Told in flashback once Wilfred himself has moved to Omaha, the rats appear to have followed him, scratching behind the walls of his rented room.
Both prose story and adaptation are a variation of Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart, where the killer’s sanity is ruined by the immense guilt of the terrible deed he has perpetrated. Wilfred James, who describes his own personal dark side as “the conniving man” isn’t an evil, murdering villain. He’s a guy who has lived on the fringes of society all his life who doesn’t know how to deal with his wife or her threat to break up the family. He dearly loves his son, and murdering Arlette is the only choice he feels is available to him. Jane is good, and buries himself in the role, talking through clenched teeth, with his face set in a perpetual grimace, it was like watching Tim Blake Nelson at times – and Molly Parker’s Annette is someone I wanted to see more of – when she’s in the movie there’s an odd sexiness about her that could have been tapped into greater by writer/director Zak Hilditch. When I recalled the King story, Arlette’s character was explored in greater depth, at least from Wilfred’s point of view, so I thought movie-Wilfred’s motivation was lessened by Hilditch’s lack of development of Arlette.
The movie does look great, though. There’s a strong attention to period detail that added the weight of authenticity to the performances, and it totally works. I’ve seen period movies that just don’t feel like they’re really set where they claim to be. Either from bad production design, anachronistic dialogue, or other means. It’s nothing like The Love Witch, but watching 1922 reminded me of how successful that movie reflected its period. Done wrong, or half-assed, lack of authenticity torpedoes a period piece, but this is one aspect that’s done well. Other parts don’t match up, though, and I’d say this is mostly down to Hilditch, who only has a handful of credits under his belt.
My main criticisms are pacing and writing. In the second half of the movie, the brakes just don’t come off this production. When Arlette is gone, and Wilfred starts having visions, there’s no sense of increased urgency – either in the is-it-real-or-isn’t-it spectre of Arlette, or the police efforts to find her when Wilfred claims she simply left home. Outside of the family, nobody really seems to care that Arlette is gone. There’s no “ticking clock” plot device, no antagonist who ups the stakes on Wilfred by coming closer to the truth. The conflict between Wilfred and Henry is limited to a couple of arguments that feel no worse than if Henry forgot to milk the cows one day. There’s almost zero authentic tension generated between them – and they both conspired to kill the kid’s mother! What drives them apart, finally, is Henry getting a local girl pregnant, and them absconding together to become a weak Bonnie and Clyde type of couple. This part of the plot is as irrelevant as it was in King’s own story – it has the effect of distracting from the narrative, which is really just about Wilfred and the maddening secret that’s consuming him – everything else is just window-dressing. Instead of excising that part of the story, Hilditch keeps it, but films them as uninspired collections of scenes that feel as if they’re thrown in for the sake of it. I was completely uninterested in both the story value of these scenes and the odd, clipped way in which they play out, and I came away feeling that Hilditch was too, and didn’t care to even try to make them interesting. I felt like I was watching one of those “true crime” TV shows, which have recreations of key scenes with Z-grade writing and acting talent. Perfunctory, and just enough to tell you what happened, with no ambition to make you care about the why.
Ultimately, it’s just about worth watching if you have a couple of hours to spare, and in terms of where it fits in other King adaptations, Hilditch’s safe-bet approach to the material puts it squarely in the middle – not enough to be called bad, but nothing of note with which to praise it either.
© Andrew Hope, 2017