Is it possible that short, straightforward literature makes the best movies? 1922 makes a case. The recent Netflix acquisition, from director Zak Hilditch, tells a story that only took Stephen King 131 pages as one of the novellas in the 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars. It’s not a film that’s going to leave audiences discussing its heavy metaphors or mind bending plot. 1922 is unapologetically a movie, a story that’s exactly what it looks like that’s not trying to blow your mind. And in that way it’s kind of refreshing. When the story isn’t revolutionary, it leaves more time to focus on craft, shading and texture. 1922‘s simple framework allows all the individual parts to sing, like Thomas Jane and Molly Parker acting the hell out of studiously recreated period dialogue from 20s Nebraska. It’s a cheeseburger that knows it’s a cheeseburger, and it’s a blast.
Jane, his skin bronzed to mahogany (he showed up to the Q&A barefoot, with just two of his shirt’s buttons buttoned), plays Wilfred James, a Nebraska farmer narrating the story of how he let the “conniving man” that lives inside all of us get the better of him in the eponymous year. His wife, Arlette, played by Parker (“Molly Parker,” oddly, is a better name for this character than Arlette James, in the tradition of Ruper Grint as Ron Weasley), wants to sell her isolated inherited acreage and move to the big city, splitting up the land and taking away all Wilfred’s ever wanted: to cultivate a big plot of land out in “the middle” and eventually pass it on to his teenage son. His son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), is on his father’s side in this, and Wilfred eventually enlists him in a murder plot. And that’s when the rats come. (It’s a shame that the titles “Of Mice And Men” and “Wilfred” were both taken).
That might be a spoiler in another movie, but Stephen King has never been the writer for big twists or heavy introspection. He’s the guy who wrote about a scary clown that lives in the sewer. And he made it good. Much of his power comes not from dreaming up the most inventive scenario, but picking one and letting it snowball, into whatever it wants. He explores, but always moves forward, like a shark. Characteristically, 1922 isn’t a setup for some grand moral quandary, it’s a classic potboiler.
On the way out of the theater I overheard someone compare it to a Lifetime movie, presumably as a diss, but there’s a reason the domestic murder story is one of the oldest forms of fiction. 1922 borrows heavily from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but its strength is its commitment to the details. The language, the acting, the costumes — there’s a textural authenticity to 1922 that suffuses every aspect, and it’s the perfect complement to an openly theatrical mystery.
At a basic level, Parker and Jane are just a pleasure to look at and listen to. They both look like cartoon drawings of ’20s movie stars, Parker with her swan-like grace and mischievous eyes, Jane with his perfectly symmetrical wood carving of a head, which takes a farmer’s tan beautifully and makes a wonderful sound when scraped with a straight razor. And that’s before they start drawling out syrupy dust bowl idioms at their son, like “Boy, don’t get histrion,” and “Stay outta the home place unless you wanna end up like yer mammer n’ daddy.” (That last one is Henry’s mom’s advice about not doing full penetration with his 14-year-old girlfriend, by the way. This just after calling him a coward if he “didn’t know what color her nipples were yet.”)
It would’ve been easy to make Arlette a shrew here, seeing as how her role is to get murdered by a husband who can’t live with her. But she isn’t. She’s just a brassy ballbuster, and she’s a delight. 1922 feels like a big-budget, gourmet take on Snapped or 48 Hours or Law & Order or any number of basic cable shows about suburban crime, and that’s fine. Sometimes you just want a cheeseburger. It’s nice when someone takes pride in making a cheeseburger.