With 1922, Zak Hildtich viscerally captures the curdled Americana that drives Stephen King’s work, which often pivots on country folk with festering secrets who allow their class resentments to drive them to monstrous acts. Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) is such a person, a rancher who convinces his teenage son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), to help him kill Henry’s mother, Arlette (Molly Parker). Arlette is determined to sell the plot of land that she inherited from her father and relocate the family to Omaha and start a dress shop, to which Wilfred, who announces via voiceover that a man’s pride is his land and his son, strenuously objects. Arlette and Wilfred’s marriage is essentially over at the start of the film, and she suggests that they split the proceeds from the sale of the real estate and go their separate ways, which would net him a previously unimaginable amount of money. But Arlette also wants to take Henry with her, unforgivably impugning Wilfred’s masculinity.
Hilditch and his actors know that Wilfred’s murderousness has little to do with farmland or custody disputes, which are pretenses for expressing rage that’s triggered by the power that Arlette wields over him. At the dinner table, Arlette is understood to be the head of the family, which poisons the pleasure that Wilfred derives from working the land. If he’s not the master, he’s a glorified servant. A blossoming man, Henry is attuned to this emasculation and feels it himself, when Arlette insults his girlfriend, Shannon (Kaitlyn Bernard), or asks for a kiss before he leaves. 1922 is driven by a powerful nightmare: a mother’s suspicion that she’s divorced from her own family by gender.
The ease with which Wilfred turns Henry against Arlette is chilling, suggesting that a neurotic storm cloud has long been in the air, and—as children torn between parents in the midst of a nasty divorce can attest—this perversion of familial bond and loyalty is all too conceivable. At one point in the film, Wilfred watches from a window as Henry rebuffs Arlette, the man’s eyes curling into a smile. And that’s all we see of Wilfred’s smile. Hilditch doesn’t over-emphasize the rancher’s sadism, as fleeting suggestions reverberate longer than gleeful cackling or figurative mustache-twirling.
Hilditch lingers on sunbaked landscapes that embody the simultaneous beauty and hypocrisy of America, a land of the free built on sexism, racism, and property theft. Images of Wilfred and Henry conspiring under the shelter of corn stalks emphasize both the comforting insularity of this little private place, as well as its toxic stagnancy. The film’s sense of rural decay also suggests Grant Wood’s American Gothic, if the painting had treaded a few steps closer to madness. Certain scenes, such as the sacrifice of a cow, have an awful and lingering weight that symbolize a perversion of the very land and animals which Wilford claims to adore. This perversion reaches heights of Grand Guignol that are familiar to the work of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, including a few of the creepiest and most vividly disgusting images of rats to appear in American cinema since Of Unknown Origin.
Wilfred initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force.