by Ken Bakely
We often talk about the importance of mood and tone and environment, but Zak Hilditch’s 1922 is a reminder that there’s more to a movie than how an individual scene feels to you. There are moments of great anxiety, of pertinent fright, and of keen disgust. But they are off-put by a wandering script which pays too much attention to the repetitive rhythms of its conceit, and not enough attention to the idea of there being more than one multidimensional character at a time. To start with a murder, to push into the feeling of unconscionability which follows, and to watch the perpetrators drift into madness – it’s been done before, in better ways.
The murdered is Arlette (Molly Parker), and the killer is her husband Wilfred (Thomas Jane), who was assisted by their son Henry (Dylan Schmid). They live on a farm in the rural midwest, in the year 1922, and there was a dispute over the future of the property – she wanted to sell it and move away, he didn’t. Arlette and Wilfred had been growing apart anyway, contemplating a divorce, and squabbling constantly. So he kills her, throws her body down a well, and proceeds to try and cancel the sale, claiming that his wife left the family. An inevitable effect is the resulting tension. He is racked with guilt, his son even moreso. Eventually, the boy threatens to leave home. But what would happen if Wilfred were to be left by himself? He has visions – Arlette’s decomposing corpse reanimating and haunting him, accompanied by the rats which gnaw at her remains. They only grow stronger.
The key is in the degradation. It draws comparisons to “The Tell-Tale Heart,” centered around the idea of the aftermath of a crime. Working from a novella by Stephen King, Hilditch works to expand 1922 to feature length. But what can be done? The Poe story, for example, is effective in how it uses its brief space to push into the headspace of its narrator. We learn through revelation. This film is painstaking in its structure, using circular dialogue and scenarios between Wilfred and Henry, or a surveyor, or the local sheriff, or anyone else. It doesn’t elaborate. It only expands.
But Thomas Jane is good in the lead role, as he pushes through obvious clutter and locates the piercing emotions within. It is the scenes in which he is alone, steeped in uncertainty and paranoia, that elevate 1922’s most visceral moments to ones of finely crafted horror. As Hilditch stretches the boundaries of reality and fantasy, intercutting between the two in a somewhat arcane style, Jane remains our constant presence. We notice his deep control over his performance, and although the script’s heavy-handed finale tries to coax him into the realms of overacting, he inherits a kind of understanding which is otherwise missing from the rest of the movie.
By then, the film has huffed and puffed all it can, and it comes to an ending that is abrupt and unsatisfying, but at the very least, doesn’t leave any loose ends. 1922 knows that there is a lurid foundation that can grab our interest, and takes us through the twists and turns of interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict which follow. It slides us through the squeamish detour of hallucinations, diversions, and general insanity. But it spins its wheels entirely too much between this. All but the most disturbing or potent sequences slip from the mind as soon as the end credits roll. Somewhere in the balance, it gets lost into an ooze of sounds and images. The thoughts endure, but the implementations do not, and the movie feels just as small.