The Netflix-produced “1922” has jolts of violence and sweeping period details, but in a year overrun with Stephen King adaptations, it’s also the simplest of them: “It” features a ludicrous shapeshifting clown, “The Dark Tower” is an inter-dimensional sci-fi western fantasy, and “Gerald’s Game” has kinky sex gone wrong and a giant goal. In “1922,” a guy kills his wife and feels guilty about it. That’s the gist of its premise, and while nothing groundbreaking, the story mines a degree of profundity out of the traditional supernatural thriller tropes at its core.
As directed by Zak Hilditch (whose 2013 debut “These Final Hours” was an expressionistic apocalyptic tale), “1922” (originally a King short story) has the merits of a solid “Tales From the Crypt” or “Masters of Horror” episode, with a straightforward story that folds the delicate visual language of a rural Terrence Malick drama into the mold of existential horror. The result suggests what might happen if Malick took at stab at “The Tell-Tale Heart,” with a mentally disturbed male protagonist straight out of King’s “The Shining.” So while not the most original or surprising King story, it hits a lot of the right notes.
The bulk of the movie’s appeal, however, comes from Thomas Jane, delivering his most effective performance in ages. He plays tortured would-be lunatic Wilfred James, who lords over 80 acres of Nebraska farmland that his family has owned for generations. Within five minutes, a disheveled Wilfred establishes in voiceover that he’s confessing a crime, and by 10 minutes, it’s clear what he’s done. When Wilfred’s wife Arlette (Molly Parker) suggests they split the land and get divorced so she can raise their teen son Henry (Dylan Schmid) in the city, he goads the young man into a scheme to kill the woman so the two of them can stay put.
This premise takes shape against the startlingly beautiful backdrop of vivid green cornfields and sunny open country, captured by cinematographer Ben Richardson (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) as if every shot were modeled on another setup from “Days of Heaven.” There’s a deep yearning to these early scenes indicative of the unreliable narrator’s utopian ideals.
Hilditch’s screenplay stays within Wilfred’s understanding of his family’s traditions, and as he establishes that comfortable world before it falls apart, his wife and son pose for the camera as if trapped in the confines of an American Gothic knockoff. That’s basically the crux of their conundrum: Wilfred’s so committed to maintaining his remote country life he’s willing to entrap his closest relatives in his scheme to keep things that way.
It doesn’t take long for Wilfred to advance his plans, and before long, Arlette’s dead in a messy, blood-soaked murder scene that Wilfred and his terrified son must cover up. Even as they do, Wilfred’s conscience slowly gets the best of him, especially once his son vanishes and the older man’s left on his own to contemplate his guilt. While a handful of characters come and go, the movie ultimately settles into a showcase for Jane, who spends much of the running time looking mortified in extreme close-up as supernatural forces swarm in.
With Hilditch shifting between the cramped hotel room where the character scrawls his confession and the crumbling wooden farmhouse, “1922” becomes a study in pure psychological dread. The warm imagery gives way to snowy landscapes, creaky floorboards, a sea of rats bursting from the ground, a slow-moving corpse caked in dirt. Wilfred’s losing his mind, and we’re right there with him.
Despite the setting, this is a pretty familiar routine, one that suggests the poor man’s “The Shining” in more ways than one. Yet again, a desperate middle-aged man goes insane at the hand of his own extreme desires, and it’s a given that he’ll never escape unscathed. Even so, “1922” manages to unearth the poetry of that formulaic trajectory. “In the end, we all get caught,” Wilfred sighs, and the movie amplifies what it means to experience that inevitability as a chilling slow-burn descent. It doesn’t take any shocking new twists, but musters just enough fresh polish to a classic scenario to make it worth one more ride.
“1922” premiered at the 2017 edition of Fantastic Fest. Netflix releases it on October 29.