'1922': Film Review | Fantastic Fest 2017

Courtesy of Fantastic Fest
A handsomely made adaptation of a King yarn as narratively spare as 'Dark Tower' was sprawling.

The year's third Stephen King adaptation follows a farmer (Thomas Jane) plagued by guilt after murdering his wife.

In this, the Year of Our King 2017, filmmakers have turned en masse to the back catalog of America's most prolific best-seller. Two much-hyped Stephen King adaptations came this summer, while two under-the-radar ones debut this week at Fantastic Fest; and in October, the author's influence will surely be felt in the second season of Stranger Things. Who knows what the holidays might hold, but in Zak Hilditch's 1922, based on the short story of the same name, we get one of the author's most stripped-down works. The pulpy period piece, Poe-like in its focus on gnawing guilt, should rank in the high middle when scholars of King cinema judge it against other adaptations; casual moviegoers, though, may feel it a bit slight — not quite well-developed enough as a straight fiction, not quite scary enough to scratch the genre itch.

Thomas Jane plays Wilfred James, a Nebraska farmer whose wife Arlette (Molly Parker) never made her peace with rural life. When she inherits a hundred acres of valuable railroad-adjacent land, Arlette sees a way out: They can sell all their property and move to the city. Wilf wants to go the opposite direction, finally having enough land to work that their son Henry (Dylan Schmid) can be assured of a future on the farm.

Realizing that he has an advantage in this argument — Henry is in love with a neighbor girl, and therefore fears his mother's impulse to leave — this self-described "conniving man" lands on a plan that wouldn't be most people's first choice, or even in the top 10: He kills Arlette and buries her in the well.

The story requires that the guilt for this crime be shared by Wilf and his son. But Hilditch's screenplay doesn't do enough to explain why Wilf can't get the thing done himself in secret, either making it look like an accidental death or selling Henry on the story he tells townsfolk: That Arlette, long dissatisfied, finally lit out for the city without saying goodbye. As things happen, Wilf and Henry must sell that fiction together, dealing with a sheriff (Brian d'Arcy James) who has no reason to disbelieve them but is prodded by the suspicious businessmen who want the land.

A moment during the disposal of the body both draws on King's knack for skin-crawling images and sets up the menace to come. Suffice to say it involves rats, and that the skritchy-nibbly vermin will haunt the guilty farmer as doggedly as the thump-thump-thumping does Poe's narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart. While developments both predictable and not threaten the James family's happiness from the outside, Wilf's conscience (and/or the supernatural power of his slain wife's soul) begin pushing him toward insanity.

Jane, who delivers this weathered laborer's dialogue through clenched teeth, is not as demonstrative as most previous big-screen recipients of King's slow-build insanity. The film is not lurid in its scares, and instead depicts its protagonist's suffering mostly as a slow rot. Contrast that with the plight of Henry, whose misadventures could drive a more active crime-spree movie but are depicted here calmly, from a distance. Wilf manages to live eight years beyond the year the movie is named for. But he might as well have fallen into that well the day he buried his wife.

Production company: Campfire
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Thomas Jane, Molly Parker, Dylan Schmid, Kaitlyn Bernard, Neal McDonough, Brian d'Arcy James
Director-screenwriter: Zak Hilditch
Producer: Ross M. Dinerstein
Executive producers: Ian Bricke, Jamie Goehring, Samantha Houseman, Kevin Leeson, Shawn Williamson
Director of photography: Ben Richardson
Production designer: Page Buckner
Costume designer: Claudia Da Ponte
Editor: Merlin Eden
Composer: Mike Patton
Casting director: Maureen Webb
Venue: Fantastic Fest

102 minutes