2017 has seen an impressive resurgence in excellent film adaptations of Stephen King’s works. The Dark Tower, IT, Gerald’s Game, 1922, and despite a stumble, – *cough* The Dark Tower *cough*- this year reminded audiences that film adaptations can be faithful to their source material, and more importantly, enjoyable when placed in the hands of a visionary director.
Set in Nebraska in 1922, Thomas Jane stars as Wilfred James, a simple yet proud farmer who cherishes his ability to pass on his country way of life to his teenage son, Henry (Dylan Schmid). But Wilfred’s wife, Arlette (Molly Parker) has other plans, having never taken to isolated country life, Arlette decides she will sell her family’s land -located adjacent to Wilfred’s which thwarts his plan to combine the two properties- and with the money move to Omaha with son Henry in tow. This threatens not only Wilfred’s way of life, but costs him his relationship with Henry, and that he cannot abide. His conniving side emerges and he conspires to murder his wife and entices his son to aide him in the sinful deed, but, as anyone familiar with Stephen King’s work will know, this evil will not go unpunished. What happens next is a tale of fathers and sons, entering manhood prematurely, and ultimately atoning for one’s sins. Also, spooky stuff.
I would classify 1922 as psychological horror, as the film focuses on the inner turmoil of the characters and how they navigate poignant situations. This is more appealing than a reliance on jump scares and gore, though both are used here sparingly. Sprinkled into the turmoil of Wilfred and Henry are brief, but ghastly scares that capitalize on the film’s dedication to a tense and atmospheric look and feel. Director and writer Zak Hilditch (Transmission, These Final Hours) has done an impeccable job of creating a constant sense of unease and dread aided by cinematographer Ben Richardson and music by Mike Patton. A majority of the first half of the film is dedicated to not only introducing the characters but for building intensity that is felt early on. Hilditch and Richardson utilize Hitchcockian shots of innocuous environments, such as James’s cornfield with jagged string instruments playing in the background that is unsettling and highly effective.
And yet, 1922 wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if it wasn’t for Thomas Jane’s career-high performance as Wilfred James. His co-stars adequately serve their purpose, but it is his dedication to perfecting midwestern mannerisms and dialogue that makes 1922 a one-man show. The film cuts between events transpiring in real time and Wilfred revealing his inner turmoil as he narrates events from the present. Every line Jane delivers has a purpose, but his story could just as easily be told through his constantly shifting and methodical facial expressions. His uneasy demeanor belies not only his character’s descent into paranoia and madness but the audience’s constant sense of unease and uncertainty.
Almost unanimous praise aside, I will say that 1922’s final chapter does run a tad too long. The time dedicated to wrapping things up results in several drawn-out scenes that honestly could have been edited more succinctly.
1922 is very clearly based on a novella and not a novel, the difference being it doesn’t have the large setpieces or grandiose action of some of the more recent Stephen King adaptations. But what it does capitalize on is the root and themes of King’s best works. There are scares here, but they never outshine the attention paid to the inner struggles of the characters, ultimately leaving a larger impression of horror. It’s a simplistic story, but between Zak Hilditch’s excellent attention to detail and ability to make even the most mundane of settings unsettling, and Thomas Jane’s powerhouse performance, 1922 is yet another example of Netflix giving directors the means with which to create their uniquely memorable vision.