Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)
Synopsis: Proud Nebraskan farmer Wilf James (Thomas Jane) is a man threatened by the modernity beyond his farm. When wife Arlette (Molly Parker) threatens to sell her share of the land and drag Wilf and their son Henry (Dylan Schmid) into the roaring 1920’s, Wilf murders her. Wilf’s sin taints him and everything he crosses as 1922 becomes a chilling ghost story.
October inaugurates my favourite time of year in England. A state of purgatory settles over the land, stalling the seasons between autumn and winter. Breath becomes visible and cold, tree trunks turn black from the rain and your day begins and ends in darkness. Surrounded by nature’s slow decay and enduring days that are never far from nightfall, it is easy to begin seeing specters reflected in window panes and faces lurking between branches. In 1922, Netflix has created a film befitting the Halloween season.
1922 harks back to the moral parable underneath the older style of ghost stories by M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft. I grew up on M.R. James’ cautionary tales of academics stumbling across hidden artifacts and whose curiosity incurs the wrath of supernatural forces. It is a style of story which seemed no longer wanted on the big screen or the small screen. Being a strange folk, we English used to tell ghost stories at Christmas Eve. The BBC upheld the tradition in the 1970’s and briefly in the 2000’s with A Ghost Story for Christmas. Yet like wraiths and ghouls, ghost stories vanished once again. Hopefully, 1922 will mark a renaissance of ghost story adaptations based on crumbling morality and existential dread, rather than a paranormal sequence of jumps, bumps, and knocks on doors.
Wilf, unable to escape his crimes
The slow canter of 1922’s plot renders the Jameses into a very human family. Wilf and Arlette are not simply a bickering couple but polar opposites trapped together. Strutting squarely across the land and tanned brown like a roasted turkey, Wilf embodies the land. Arlette, draped in a modern dress and sporting a flapper haircut, yearns to escape to the city. From the couple’s quiet staring contests, to the camera lurking behind Wilf’s shoulder when they talk, enmity oozes between the two characters. Shortly before the murder, Arlette drops her shield of bitterness and regrets her life choices which landed her with Wilf. Henry, like many children in a dysfunctional family is caught between husband and wife, with shot and counter-shot at the dinner table obscuring Henry against the outline of Wilf or Arlette. Once the deed is done, 1922 crumbles Wilf’s life away with dashes of dark humour nodding to his tragic fate while Thomas Jane’s narration prevents the plot from petering out.
The unloving couple, Wilf and Arlette.
Cinematographer Ben Richardson’s short snaps of detail add a sense of brooding to 1922. Eyes wander between Wilf and Artlette as they talk or observe each other from afar. Objects and locations across the farm flash before the screen while Wilf diligently plans his wife’s execution like harvesting another bushel of the corn we see shadowed against the dawn. Richardson uses suggestion to convey a Hitchockian level of detail, with snippets of the house’s increasing dilapidation reflecting Wilf’s own mental strain and guilt. Overall 1922 is visually stunning. The plains of Nebraska are swathed in colour with pearl white banks of snow clashing against the crayola yellow of a neighbour’s house. The richness of Richardson’s work is complimented by the taught plucking of violin strings in Mike Patton’s score, which will prickle goosebumps as Wilf becomes haunted by his guilt and something else.
A murder in the planning.
Having given a good performance in The Mist which I reviewed here, it is in Thomas Jane’s third appearance in a Stephen King film that he really shines. Affecting both the mannerisms and accent of a contemporary Nebraskan farmer, Jane is unrecognisable as Wilf. Jane speaks more through the roll of his green eyes than his lips like many hard men found on the plains. Despite all that Wilf does he remains a sympathetic character, a man who desperately clings to the life he knows, even when there is no reason to carry on. Again Jane’s narration of events helps to maintain sympathy as Wilf suffers a litany of misfortune. Molly Parker gives a great but sadly brief performance as Arlette. Following her work in 1922 and another Netflix production, Small Crimes, she will hopefully soon receive larger roles. Dylan Schmid is a delightful surprise as Henry James, balancing the conflict and guilt he feels over his mother’s death with the angst and rebelliousness of a young man.
For a spooky tale in time for Halloween, 1922 is a great addition to Netflix’s repertoire. Compared to Netflix’s previous adaptation of Gerald’s Game, 1922 does not scare as strongly but retains the eeriness of Stephen King’s stories.
By Saul Shimmin
For the trailer, see below: