“In 1922 I murdered my wife…My son aided me.” Thus describes the sorry plight of Wilfred James, a withered, broken man on the verge of a self-induced collapse in 1922, the latest adaptation of a Stephen King work in a year stacked with excellent ones (IT, Gerald’s Game) and at least one notable stinker (The Dark Tower). If you’re curious, 1922 sits squarely on the good side.
The story is culled from King’s 2010 anthology Full Dark, No Stars, which has already been mined with adaptations for A Good Marriage and Big Driver. Generally, 1922 is King’s extremely sour retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, with a helping of Southern Gothic gristle. As an adaptation it’s fairly straightforward, warts and all, though some may see an underlying sense of male entitlement lurking in the shadows. Consider that 1922 comes from the same author – along with son Owen – who, just this month, released an apocalyptic spin on gender equality and toxic masculinity with Sleeping Beauties. Perhaps it’s just coincidence that 1922, too, concerns a father-son collaboration to deliver the ultimate act of misogyny.
The setup is simple: the once-happy marriage between Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) and his wife Arlette (Molly Parker) is on the skids. There’s also disagreement with what do with valuable land they inherited from Arlette’s father, which in Depression-era Nebraska could make the difference between thriving or merely surviving. Her solution: they quietly divorce, with Wilfred leaving her with both the land and sole custody of their teenage son Henry (Dylan Schmid). His solution is slightly more macabre: manipulate his son to help murder Arlette and dispose of the body down the family well, thus maintaining peace on the farm.
Wilfred succeeds, of course, and after the dirty deed the two quickly stash Arlette’s body in said well. Nesting there, her remains soon become a veritable feast – and home – for armies of rats. These are among the film’s most grotesque and squeal-inducing scenes; if you’re a murophobic, best stay away.
Whatever hope Wilfred had for a life on easy streak quick fades as his world begins to crumble, moving from one catastrophic event to the next. Dylan, wracked by guilt and teenage hormones, leaves him for greener pastures, only to succumb to his own bad decisions. Wilfred becomes haunted by his murdered wife’s spectre, perhaps literally, perhaps figuratively. As he continues his downward spiral, it’s impossible to feel compassion for a man showing more concern when putting down a beloved cow than murdering his wife.
The film is expertly directed by Zak Hilditch (These Final Hours), who fully understands the power of King’s original story and what audiences expect. This vision is helped immeasurably with a fierce score by Mike Patton (The Place Beyond the Pines, Crank: High Voltage) that harkens back to the great horror themes of the 70s; think Texas Chainsaw Massacre or even the recent Get Out. Is there anything truly more frightening than oscillating squeaky violins?
Thomas Jane, no stranger to King adaptations (The Mist, Dreamcatcher), is both physically and vocally transformed as the desperate Wilfred James. He’s thoroughly convincing, utterly unnerving. I’d forgotten just how great he can be in the right role. He delivers a performance in one of those period-appropriate rural Southern “sum-bitch” drawls that only seem to exist in movies like this anymore. Not a trace of his native Australian accent remains as his constant narration becomes the audience’s companion on his private road straight to Hell.
I’ve no doubt that, had this been filmed during the original wave of Stephen King adaptations we saw during the 1980s-90s, it might’ve been psychologically accurate, but with the rest stripped bare of its most shocking content and populated with so-so television actors. It certainly wouldn’t have been anchored by a performance as terrifying and complete as the one given here by Jane. If Netflix ever works out their issues with the Academy, you’d be hearing a lot more Oscar buzz coming from his portrayal as Wilfred James.
1922 delivers a depressing meditation of a guilty man in self-inflicted moral free fall, one that deserves neither our sympathy or compassion. It’s also yet another win for the year’s string of successful Stephen King adaptations. We hear so much about this Golden Age of Television we’re currently enjoying that I’m surprised how little we’ve considered that the very definition of what “television” is has been forever altered. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and whatever AT&T’s AUDIENCE Network (home of the excellent Mr. Mercedes) seem to have found their muse in Stephen King’s sizeable catalog.