In a rundown hotel room, a Nebraska farmer, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) writes his confession, telling how “…in 1922, I murdered my wife.”
Adapted from Stephen King’s 2010 novella of the same name, 1922 is a slow burn affair that begins prosaically enough: man of the land Wilfred is proud of his farm and the son, Henry, (Dylan Schmid) he hopes will follow in his footsteps. His wife, Arlette (Molly Parker) longs for life in the big city (ironically, Omaha – not that big at all) and plans to sell some land she has inherited. Slowly but surely, Wilfred’s thoughts turn murderous. He manages to enlist Henry in his cause and before long, Arlette is at the bottom of a well with a slit throat.
And then things start to get really interesting.
Australian writer and director Zak Hilditch (These Final Hours) mounts 1922 as an American Gothic moral fable, heavy on haunting atmosphere and spiced with the occasional bit of graphic violence and gross-out gore. The shadow of Edgar Allan Poe looms large here; indeed, 1922 is very much King’s riff on The Tell-Tale Heart, with Wilfred gradually driven to madness by guilt over his crime – possibly abetted by supernatural means. The other classic of American horror literature the story is indebted to, in a roundabout way, is Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls, for reasons which become apparent when the symbol of Wilfred’s guilt makes itself known in the text. (Also, note son Henry’s full name.)
Structurally, 1922 is a little weak, running along a “…and then this happened” train track inherited from the source material. What carries us through is an absolutely sterling performance from Thomas Jane, who over the last few years has proven himself to be a top notch, nigh-chameleonic character actor (compare his work here with what he does on The Expanse). In lesser hands, the slow-talking, down-home Wilfred could come across as a caricature. With Jane inhabiting his skin, he’s both human and mythic: an outwardly decent man slaved to his own petty jealousies and insecurities, and something larger, like a dark mirror of Tom Joad, victim to not just his own moral failings but to the forces of modernity itself – it’s Arlene’s longing for a more modern, urban lifestyle that sets things in motion, after all. And so, 1922 is very much an American ghost story, using a deceptively simple – albeit shudder-inducing – tale of murder and guilt to dig into larger myths about the nature of American culture, in particular American masculinity and its failings in the face of change.
Even if you don’t want to dig that deep, the film offers plenty of thrillers for the shock cinema connoisseur. Hilditch has an admirable command of tone and atmosphere, and he’s not afraid to get bloody when circumstances demand it – the central murder is a messy bit of business, and it’s only the first of a number of strong – in every sense – scenes of violence and mutilation.Those shocks never overpower the film’s somber tone, though, which is commendable – it would be easy to rely on the gross-out gags to hold our interest, but 1922 has more interesting things in mind than jump scares. This is a rock solid, astute, effective and thematically rich piece of modern horror cinema, an absolute must for both fans of the genre and fans of simply great films.