Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.
2017 has been a banner year for Stephen King adaptations, but the batting average hasn’t been so hot. It is easily the best of the bunch: in spite of its “more, and then much more” aesthetic, hit it big with audiences, and is now reportedly the highest-grossing horror film of all time. The Dark Tower, on the other hand, was a confused, generic would-be series-launcher, and Spike TV’s The Mist and the Audience Network’s Mr. Mercedes series have both been accused of stretching out their stories until their energies get lost along the way.
That criticism highlights the problem with every one of this year’s King adaptations to date: none of them are out to tell a simple, direct story. It is the first half of a two-film package, Dark Tower was planned as one installment in a sprawling film-and-TV cinematic universe, and The Mist and Mr. Mercedes are both in a position to continue their stories if the ratings justify the expense. Which is why 2017’s latest King adaptation, Netflix’s feature film 1922, comes as such a comparative relief. It isn’t trying to lay the foundations for a grand, cosmic universe. It isn’t trying to build characters who can sell their own merch and carry their own spin-offs down the road. It’s just a simple, single self-contained horror story.
It’s also a phenomenally grim one, as King readers can already attest.
What’s the genre?
Gothic heartland horror. The exact nature of that horror is ambiguous, and left up to the viewer more than it is in King’s novella, but regardless, it’s a gory tragedy in the most classical sense.
What’s it about?
Thomas Jane (who was hilariously awful in the King adaptation Dreamcatcher, but acquits himself memorably here) stars as Wilfred James, a farmer grimly clinging to his family land in 1920s Nebraska. His wife Arlette (Molly Parker of Deadwood and House of Cards fame) has recently inherited a significant plot of farmland, which she wants to sell so the family can move to Omaha, “or even St. Louis!” Wilf, however, is disgusted by the idea of city living. He has his entire life planned out: work the farm, hang on to what he has, live without what he doesn’t have (indoor plumbing, for instance), and pass his farm on to their 14-year-old son Henry (Dylan Schmid) when he does. Arlette’s plan to sell her acreage to a hog-farming combine would pollute his land, and giving into her plan would mean either living in the city, or divorcing Arlette and inevitably losing Henry to her custody. So Wilf quietly plans to murder Arlette, and to bring Henry in on the act to assure the boy’s silence and lock him to the land.
What’s it really about?
Consequences and guilt. 1922 is essentially a Midwestern riff on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell- Tale Heart, with its own considerable twists: Wilf doesn’t hack up his wife or bury her under the floorboards, and he isn’t caught when he loses his mind in front of friendly cops. But the movie opens with him sitting down in a hotel room to write his confession, and as the film progresses, it becomes clear that as locked in one place as he is, he’s never managed to outrun his shame. This is a story about conscience and sin, and the way murder tarnishes the soul. This is a fairly heady idea for a film made in a country where our films, TV shows, and video games all routinely feature heroes killing anyone marked as a “bad guy.” 1922 screenwriter and director Zak Hilditch doesn’t entirely draw out the theme, not as much as King did, but he certainly lets the audience know exactly how Wilf’s crimes poison his life and his planned future.
Is it good?
It has its problems, though they mostly stem from King’s source material. Hilditch sticks closely to King’s narrative, apart from a surprising change in the literal last second of the story. But that means he inherits King’s plot structure, which among other things has a considerable amount of the story only being revealed through a sort of magical vision, and only after the fact. And like The Tell-Tale Heart, 1922 races toward the mechanics of the murder without spending enough time on establishing who the protagonist is, and whether murder is naturally in his makeup, or he has to struggle his way toward it. Like virtually all the King adapters who respect the author’s storylines instead of radically rewriting them into something more generic and obvious, Hilditch keeps some of King’s actual language, turning it into a voiceover where Wilf explains his inner thoughts. But that alone doesn’t go far enough toward explaining who Wilf is, or why his story should matter to viewers. He’s a quickly sketched character, and that hurts the story.
But Jane’s lean, hungry, squinting portrayal goes a long way toward filling in the blanks. In a post-screening Q&A at Fantastic Fest, Jane said he worked with a vocal coach to get down the strange drawling accent he uses in the film — a Nebraska accent derived from period recordings, before mass media and worldwide communication started easing the variety and color out of regional speech patterns. It’s a highly specific choice, much like the way Jane occasionally punctuates his words with derisive spitting, or the lizardy narrow-eyed way he watches and judges the world around him. He’s a powerful central figure, and his role here covers a range he hasn’t always achieved well, from anger to affection to determination to stark terror.
Schmid and Parker also do impressive work here, with Parker in particular making conscious choices to sand some of the most uncomfortable edges off Arlette, making her strong rather than shrill. And Hilditch does sometimes let the story stretch out into the laconic fireside story it needs to be; he focuses on sunsets and cornfields, on the farm that’s Wilf’s entire world, and brings down the weight of time passing in a way that’s crucial to the story. And when the shocks start, they’re both well-timed and memorably staged. He has an eye for horrifying imagery. King’s novella centers in part on an image Wilf can’t seem to get out of his head, and when Hilditch puts it on the screen, it’s easy to see why. 1922 gets rushed in both the first and the third act, and it achieves its best moments in the middle going, with character work between Jane and Schmid. But at its best, it’s a reminder that King’s biggest strengths lie in his ability to build tension, create atmosphere, and tell a direct and brutal story, not in his ability to launch profitable many-branched franchises.
What should it be rated?
It’s bloody and disturbing, but also reasonably circumspect about the violence. PG-13 seems reasonable.
How can I actually watch it?
1922 debuts on Netflix on October 20, 2017.