This post is Spoileron, Lord of Spoilers.
2017 was a banner year for Stephen King adaptations, from the recent It remake and Gerald’s Game to the perhaps ill-advised first descent into the Dark Tower universe, there was a glut of King stories making their way to the silver screen.
Then we have 1922.
It was a less talked about adaptation that made its way onto Netflix around the same time as Gerald’s Game, following a very popular trend in movies right now with the “horror with a limited amount of characters in mostly one location” structure. This has been an extremely profitable type of film in recent years, with one of 2017’s standouts, Get Out, following that exact same formula. Limiting locations and characters allows a film to put more money into other departments, such as art direction and costumes, and overall builds a much more polished product. However, going this route means that everything in the film has to be top notch, otherwise the wheels start coming off. This is exactly what happened with 1922.
Based off of a novella first published within King’s collection Full Dark, No Stars, 1922 tells the tale of Wilfred James (Thomas Jane), a farmer in southeastern Nebraska who’s at odds with his wife, Arlette (Molly Parker), on whether or not to sell off his farmland. Arlette has become dissatisfied with farm life and wants to move to Omaha, whereas Wilfred, whose land has been in his family for generations, wants to stay put. Arlette owns one hundred acres of land adjacent to Wilfred’s, and the two end up in a power struggle. Desperate to keep his way of life intact, Wilfred recruits his 14 year-old son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), to help him kill Arlette, and the two do so, with terrible consequences.
The film does a good job of dropping you into the time period, as the production design is solid, if a bit inaccurate. Car models that don’t appear until a few years after 1922 drive up to the James residence, and the entire family is fairly clean and well put together for one that doesn’t have indoor plumbing. Still, it’s effective enough to be drawn in. The cinematography makes great use of the Nebraska flatlands early on, and creates some evocative imagery with the horizon lines and James family cornfield. In fact, the film really shows its best for the first 25 minutes, until the slow descent of both the characters and the story.
What’s so interesting about the first 25 minutes is the power struggle between Arlette and Wilfred. They’re petulant, childish, and consumed by their own ideas of a good way of life, which is what makes their conflict so dimensional. The performances by Thomas Jane and Molly Parker are excellent in the moments of their strife and sparks fly when they share scenes. The whole situation feels Steinbeckian, with an exploration of greed, power and family in a pre-Dust Bowl era.
But when Wilfred kills Arlette with the help of his son, the film starts to flounder. There’s a sense of “well…what now?” that the film never really gets over. Wilfred wasn’t a particularly likeable character before, and he certainly doesn’t become one later on. It isn’t necessary to have a likeable lead, but it is important to put them into situations that make them interesting, and 1922 doesn’t really do that. Wilfred and Henry cover up the murder and then the next hour and ten minutes are spent dealing with consequences that aren’t engaging. So much of the enjoyment of the first 25 minutes stems from the morbid curiosity of seeing just how cruel this couple is going to get with each other. When that main conflict is resolved, there’s nobody for Wilfred to be cruel to anymore. There’s a slight uptick when Henry knocks up his girlfriend, which then introduces a new and interesting conflict, but that too is resolved quickly and Henry simply runs off. It’s all pretty predictable and the story continuously seems to take the path of least resistance when it comes to conflict. Put it this way: if The Shining had this movie’s structure, Jack Torrance would’ve become murderous a heck of a lot sooner. Instead of coming up with creative ways to keep the conflict brewing and escalating, 1922 ducks out of all of it at the soonest possible time, until only the weakest part of the movie is left: the imagery.
To 1922’s credit, there are no jump scares. I loathe jump scares. I feel they are a cheap and often clumsy attempt at stirring up anxiety instead of methodically using pacing, performance and imagery, but that’s for a different post. Again, to this movie’s credit, it tries to use those things to create a creepy vibe. The issue is that it doesn’t work all that well. There are a number of reasons for this, firstly, I think, due to the narration. The story is narrated by Wilfred as a confession note some years after 1922, and is largely annoying. Narration as a whole isn’t a bad thing in movies, but there has to be creative uses of it. Early on, the characters are introduced with narration as if they’re posing for a photograph, and that works exceptionally well. The issue is that too many times the narration steps on dramatic moments, keeping the audience at arms length. A seminal moment for the movie, where the corpse of Arlette returns to whisper Henry’s fate in Wilfred’s ear, is almost completely narrated. Wilfred’s voice is used as a buffer between us and the scene, which puts a damper on the horror by severing our first-person connection. We’re being told that Arlette told Wilfred something, but we don’t get to experience it ourselves. So much of the movie is like that, with Wilfred telling us these things instead of us largely seeing it firsthand.
Another reason the imagery doesn’t work is that…well…it’s just kind of weak. The use of rats and the ultimate reveal of Arlette’s corpse isn’t photographed or choreographed with any kind of tact or focused energy, it feels like the movie just says “Tadaaa! There it is!” and then moves on to something else. I haven’t read the novella, but being familiar with King’s work I can say that he’s very good at creating effective and tense reveals of something like this. When you remove his descriptions and his personality from the work, it can occasionally feel bland, which is what happens here. And besides! The story holds so much promise in those first few sequences with performance alone, there’s almost no need for creepy imagery at all. It all just feels tacked on, unfortunately, and bogs the movie down.
In summary, 1922 has effective performances, an interesting premise, and lots of potential, but it’s wasted in a story that spends too much time spinning its wheels instead of escalating conflict. Which is to say, it’s indicative of Stephen King’s worst tendencies, so it might not be too bad of an adaptation after all.
This article was written by Samuel Becker: writer for hire, Tek5 Filmscore Critic, and general hypocrite.
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