1922 – The Horror of Decay

I finally got around to watching 1922 on Netflix, knowing nothing about it initially except for the fact that it was (yet another) Stephen King adaptation. When it comes to viewing adaptations of King’s work, I try to maintain a healthy skepticism going into the film. While there have been many successes (Stand by MeThe ShiningMisery), there have been just as many failures (CellThe Dark TowerPet Sematary). The list can go on for quite a while in both directions. It may seem unfair to Mr. King himself to lump all the films ever adapted from his work into one pile and attribute them to him, somehow. Still, it’s the natural and unfortunate consequence of someone of both his ability and profitability handing over his work’s rights to other creators. 

1922 is a 2017 Netflix original by Australian Director Zak Hilditch. The film stars Thomas Jane (a personal favorite of mine, especially with his recent performance on The Expanse) playing a Nebraskan farmer, Wilfred, aka “Wilf,” who lives on a massive farmland plot passed down through the family of his wife, Arlene. Unfortunately for him, that means that when his wife threatens to sell off the land and move to Omaha, he has to find a way to convince her otherwise or risk becoming another city-slicker (gasp!). Wilf’s objections to the city are your regular deal. Cesspits of sin and vermin, degradation of moral fabric, loose women, loose men, loose children, you get the idea. Of course, these moral objections don’t seem to matter much to Wilf when he decides that his only course of action is to murder his wife. The above takes up maybe the first fifteen minutes or so of the film, narrated by an older, world-weary Wilf who is penning his confession to the crime. 

The crux of the film is Wilf’s relationship with his son Henry. Wilf decides that if he’s going to go through with his plot, he needs Henry on his side. As a result, we get a genuinely horrifying scene of Henry holding Arlette down while Wilf takes a butcher’s knife to her throat. The murder scene is so messy, so drawn out, with closeups of the torn flesh spouting blood and Arlette’s pillow-muffled screams. The scene drives home Henry’s involvement as not just complicity, but as wholly active and utterly horrific. He’s in as deep as Wilf.

What follows looks a lot if Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” had a baby. As Wilf and Henry perform a series of practical coverups, building a card-house of lies with the local authorities and neighbors, and try to keep up their facade of innocent bafflement at Arlette’s mysterious “disappearance,” they are simultaneously falling further down the rabbit hole of grief. Much like Poe’s story, this comes with hallucinations (Or are the visions real? The film never makes any attempt to explain this, nor does it seem much to care. Sometimes it’s better that way, which is certainly the case in 1922). However, unlike in Poe’s tale, we see this play out over two characters instead of one, allowing us to follow our protagonists’ diverging coping mechanisms.

Even though there is some outright bloody violence right from the get-go, most of the film’s horror scenes are focused on creating an atmosphere created by and exploring the corrosive nature of guilt. It’s pretty well-worn territory, but 1922 does manage to somewhat distinguish itself through the performances, an impressive feat considering how self-serious and humorless the script can be at times — leading the viewer down a seemingly endless road of harsh truths and misery. It is a road that ultimately ends up exactly where you think it will, the toll of time eventually catching up to both Wilf and Henry.

This theme, the fact that time eventually has its way with flesh, and that the things inside us that want out will find a way; this is the horror of decay, which defines 1922. Wilf tries to outrun time through denial, through drinking, through moving, and as such, fate catching up with him comes in many forms. It comes in the form of the law closing in on him, it comes in the form of his own health deteriorating, and it comes in the form of his guilt gnawing away at his psyche. The recurring references to the rats in the walls are an obvious and maybe slightly heavy-handed motif for Wilf’s psyche getting eaten away from the inside as he loses himself more and more. And when the rats finally find their way out into the open, so at last do Wilf’s ghosts. At least they promise to make it quick.

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