War is Hell (duh) in Jayne Mansfield’s Car

**this review is reprinted from 2012 when I saw Jayne Mansfield’s Car at the Melbourne International Film Festival**

War is hell, duh. Sadly, Billy Bob Thornton’s first time behind the camera in some 11 years (Daddy and Them, unreleased in Australia as far as I am aware) isn’t able to muster many more ideas for Jayne Mansfield’s Car, a 1969-set southern drama that looks at the effects of three wars on three different generations of one family. Surely attempting to be “sprawling”, the impressively cast ensemble try hard to find tender nuances amongst Thornton and Tom Epperson’s screenplay, but an unfocused structure that leaves many characters with nothing to do for long stretches (and sometimes, in Frances O’Connor’s case, disappearing from the narrative entirely) makes for an ultimately disjointed affair. The title is a doozy, a reference to the piece of pop culture memorabilia that found itself in a touring macabre sideshow of celebrity worship, but is perhaps too evocative and colourful a name for a film that is so concerned with the more tight-knit confines of family.

The developments that bring the Bedford family – John Hurt, Ray Stevenson, and O’Connor – from their home in England all the way to Alabama certainly pique initial interest. As Hurt and the ex-husband of his now deceased wife, played with typical externalised gruff by Robert Duvall, duke out their own decades-old argument, his children and grandchildren all have their own heavy stuff to deal with. Thornton’s Skip is deeply wounded (both mentally and physically) from his time in WWII, the same war that has turned Kevin Bacon’s Carroll into a peace-loving hippy. The third brother, Robert Patrick’s Jimbo, didn’t go to any war and yet carries scars all of his own. Bacon has perhaps the most interesting of the film’s many characters, having to deal with the shame he puts upon his decorated WWI hero father’s image as well as a son who, quite tellingly, thinks enlisting for the Vietnam War would be a “rock and roll” thing to do. What they would all think of soldiers lip syncing to Carly Rae Jespen’s “Call Me Maybe” on YouTube is never broached.

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Thornton imbues his film with the same rustic, southern gothic sensibility that he gave his debut, Sling Blade, in 1995. Perhaps Jayne Mansfield’s Car was his attempt to return to safer territory after the much-noted debacle of All the Pretty Horses in 2000. Sadly, this more expansive tale never reaches any of the lofty heights it is clearly aiming for. It looks lovely, and and an electric twang-heavy score plus references to era-defining moments in time mean there’s usually something to be paying attention to, but for a film that appears to be trying to say so much it never really gets above that initial statement of “war is hell”.

The fingerprints of a scissor-happy editor are there on screen as well as off. O’Connor’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” reciting step-sister seemingly vanishes for a couple of days with nary a mention of her name to remind audiences of her whereabouts. She’s the highlight of the film – “It’s like Gone with the Wind!” – and her vanishing act is truly a mystery. Meanwhile, the film’s Wikipedia page (which humorously implies Duvall, Bacon and Thornton play the three central brothers) cites Tippi Hedren as the wife who fled Alabama for the UK, and yet she never once appears on screen. I can’t imagine the bulk of the tiresome “old man takes LSD, LOL!” segment was more important, but there you go. Even the collage-style poster appears to feature images that didn’t make the final product.

War is hell, duh. That’s still all I can figure Thornton’s film amounts to. Perhaps if he’d focused on one of the story lines over this more mosaic structure he could have truly buried deeper. As it ends – quite bizarrely might I add – it feels like Thornton hasn’t used the themes and the setting in any particularly unique way, with little idea of how to maximise the potential of his big moments. It’s deep-fried Americana, but all a bit tasteless. C+

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