Wilfred “Wilf” James (Thomas Jane) is a Nebraska farmer, living with his estranged wife Arlette (Molly Parker) and teenage son Henry (Dylan Schmid). When Arlette inherits a patch of land, she announces a plan to sell it and to open a dress shop in Omaha with the proceeds – taking Henry with her and leaving Wilf in the process. Resenting her attempt to separate him from his son and farm, Wilf chooses to murder her instead. It is a choice that returns to haunt him in more ways than one.
“1922” is a 2010 novella by Stephen King, one adapted for the screen by writer/director Zak Hilditch and released direct to Netflix in 2017. It is a hugely effective, intimate ghost story, presented on a small scale, and perfectly capturing both the literary quality and the tone of King’s original work. King remains one of the most widely adapted authors of all time. The last five years alone have seen his work transformed into nine feature films and seven television dramas, including 1922. They all vary in quality, obviously, with few directors quite managing to replicate King’s specific blend of the mundane and the uncanny. To date, and in my opinion, the most effective of King’s adaptations have come from Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist). Hilditch manages to achieve the same thing: through a measured pace, a claustrophobic tone, and deeply effective narration by Thomas Jane, 1922 feels like nothing less than Stephen King perfectly replicated to the screen.
It is Thomas Jane’s film through-and-through; events barely leave Wilf’s side for the whole film, with only occasional diversions to follow his son Henry. It is a particularly strong performance for Jane, who sinks into the role with the benefit of hair, makeup, and accent, and emerges barely recognisable as the former star of The Mist, The Punisher, and other earlier performances. The film walks a tightrope in keeping Wilf deeply unsympathetic: we are never in doubt as to his motivations, since he begins the film years later writing a confession in a hotel room. While making Wilf likeable is never a possibility, he is presented as a tragic figure. His punishment for murdering Arlette, which comes in both real and supernatural fashions, makes for addictive viewing.
Not that his victim is much more pleasant. Arlette’s marriage to Wilf is clearly broken from the get-go, and she is quick to drink and even quicker to criticise. The film presents her as actively unpleasant; nothing to make her death justified, but certainly enough to muddy the waters and extend the overall sense of tragedy. The same is true of Henry. He may deeply regret his choices later, but he does still agree to help murder his own mother. It is a story where everybody loses, and nobody escapes the consequences. Performances across the board are strong, notably both Molly Parker as Arlette and the constantly underrated Neal McDonough as neighbour Harlan Cotterie.
Hilditch captures the story with a bleak tone and a slow pace. The patience with which Wilf’s fate unfolds is so slow, in fact, that the entire work feels particularly like a piece of short fiction brought to life. It feels not just seen, but read. For fans of King, ghost stories, and small-scale cinema, 1922 is a real gem.