1922: The Feel Bad Movie of the Season

"1922"
Courtesy of Netflix

Have you been finding meaning in the smiles of strangers? Do birds seems to hover around you as if you were in a Disney movie? All in all, has life been treating you too well recently? If any of these questions speak to you, consider returning to bitter reality by watching the new Netflix original film, “1922.” Adapted from a Stephen King’s novella, the film explores how despicable humanity can be in an impressively short runtime of an hour and 40 minutes. Not the best thing to stream on date night, “1922” begins with our narrator, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane), confessing to the murder of his wife. Relative to the rest of this downer of a film, however, this initial catalyst is comparable to the first 15 minutes of a teen slasher, in which the characters are less worried about axe murderers than they are about getting laid. As for “1922,” it only gets worse from here on.

Told through flashbacks to the year 1922, the film is shot in an unsettling manner. The camera is extremely personal and close, focusing on the subtleties and mannerisms of each character and character interaction. Adding to these suffocating visuals are shots that are intentionally impeded by corn stalks, plaster, or pelting snow. In a way, the cinematography treats the viewer as an intruder—an unhelpful witness to the heinous crime committed by Wilfred James and its terrible consequences. This film evokes a titillating sense of voyeurism as we view the captivating inner lives of a small rural family. However, this interesting sensation is amplified by hostility towards the viewer. The film’s cinematography is unwelcoming and distant. We know we should look away, but as the film descends into madness, we can’t help but stare.

These claustrophobic visuals are accompanied by a similarly eerie score. The movie indulges itself in slow-burning, reactive ambient music that effortlessly mirrors the action on screen. The score often pieces together the ongoing action of the film and the inner mechanizations of the characters with almost violent changes in tempo and pace.

The acting in the film is superb. As mentioned previously, the intimacy of the cinematography puts each character under a microscope. Faced with this challenge, all the actors in “1922” have subtle mannerisms that add layers to the film’s narrative and emotional appeal. For instance, as Wilfred James stares at his wife’s decomposing body, he starts to quiver at the sight. And while the film’s dialogue is a bit uninspired, the actors have really internalized their lines and deliver them with dramatic gravitas.

Thomas Jane plays the role of Wilfred James to perfection. He delivers a memorable performance and truly embodies our deeply flawed but relatable protagonist. Eliciting sympathy from a wife-murderer is no easy task, but, by the end of the film, it’s hard not to feel for this forsaken individual. Jane’s unique, grizzled voice feels like it could have only been achieved by guzzling steel mesh, and his presence is stoically intimidating. (Not so fun fact: Thomas Jane also played the lead role in an arguably even more depressing Stephen King movie, “The Mist.” Feel free to watch both “1922” and “The Mist” in a “Why did I do this to myself?” double feature.)

“1922” is by no means a gore-fest, but when the film does get bloody, it's to great effect. Blood doesn't gush out violently like in a Quentin Tarantino film, but trickles haphazardly, making every scene feel all too real. The murder scene, in particular, is extremely disturbing in its realism. Arlette’s (Molly Parker) desperate struggle to escape the murderous grasp of her husband is absolutely gruesome. Her death is uncomfortably long, and the camera pulls no punches as we get a full shot of her body convulsing and going limp. This scene is an early indicator that the film won’t have clean conclusions. Murder is messy, and the blood doesn’t wash off easy, as Wilfred James will soon learn.

(PSA: Animal lovers beware! There are a couple of unsettling animal deaths in this movie, so be prepared to watch some farm animals meet some gruesome ends. For cow enthusiasts, Netflix offers the 2006 version of “Charlotte’s Web.”)

Stephen King film adaptations have a reputation for successful transitions to the big screen, and although the screen’s a bit smaller on Netflix, “1922” shines just as bright. The direction and acting is inspired and King’s masterful storytelling takes on a life of its own through the cinematography. Not a movie for the faint of heart, “1922” will disturb you and give you little reason to be hopeful about humanity.

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