There’s no question this is the year of Stephen King. Two theatrical releases, multiple television series, and two new adaptations coming to Netflix soon indicate the fervor for the prolific author’s work have yet to subside. While Gerald’s Game may be the more well-known of the two adaptations, Netflix’s surprise adaptation of King’s lesser known novella 1922 is one that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Adapted for screen and directed by long-time King fan, Zak Hilditch, 1922 is the slow unraveling of Nebraskan man Wilfred James as he confesses to murdering his wife, Arlette, and the consequences that set into effect. As Wilfred, Thomas Jane submerses himself wholly not only in vintage Nebraskan dialect, but the grizzled, unreliable nature of Wilfred’s character. He first connives to rid his wife, a nuisance for both her crass personality and her disdain for farm life, and then struggles with his sanity as he begins to suspect his dead wife is haunting him. Molly Parker is a scene stealer as the strong-willed Arlette, both in life and in death.
Hilditch paints an effective portrait of farm life in 1922. The unique, vintage setting contributes heavily to a disquieting atmosphere and makes for a sort of understated main character. The still nature of the farm, combined with Wilfred’s downward spiral, also elongates a running time that’s rather short. It’s the definitive of a slow burn, punctuated by creepy moments that come too few and far between. It doesn’t help that Wilfred isn’t very likeable. Granted, he’s not supposed to be, but it makes waiting for his heinous crimes to catch up to him much more drawn out.
To alleviate this, the film spends a lot of time showing us how Wilfred’s son Henry, whom he roped in as a collaborator in Arlette’s murder, copes with his guilt. He grasps on tightly to the only thing that doesn’t feel tainted, his love for the sweet girl next door. The teen is purer in heart than his conniving father, and his remorse wears him down much more quickly. His path becomes the more heartbreaking one, not least of all because of the two James’ family members left, he’s the only one engendered to the viewer.
The highlight of the film, of course, is the gruesome nature of Arlette’s murder and her subsequent haunting of her murderous husband. Parker is an eerie undead presence, and her pack of rats is potent enough to incur musophobia. The narrative tries very hard to straddle the line between actual haunting and the metaphorical haunting of Wilfred’s guilt, but thanks to pacing, it would’ve been more effective to play up those supernatural elements a bit more. For a man as unpleasant as Wilfred, it would have been nice to have him suffer a bit more than he did. Jane does what he can to bring humanity and relatable motive to his part, but, being that this is based on a 131-page novella, there’s only so much there on page.
From a visual and technical standpoint, 1922 is great. An extremely talented cast with an equally fantastic score by Mike Patton, this film should work more than it does. It’s a slow burn that lacks the punch needed in the payoff to make the journey worth it. On that level I don’t think it succeeds. The story itself is compelling enough, punctuated by some really creepy moments. It just left me wanting more. Truthfully though, I think enjoyment on this one is more reflective of taste than flaws.
1922 premiered at Fantastic Fest on September 23, and will be available on Netflix on October 20, 2017.