February 12, 2012 (Berlin International Film Festival)
September 13, 2013 (United States)
United States (English)
Directed by Billy Bob Thornton
Written by Thornton and Tom Epperson
The talented ensemble in Jayne Mansfield’s Car fires on all fronts, giving this small-scale period piece the weight it deserves. I’d like to honor a standout performance, but each scene pulled me into another’s camp. It’s a slow, eventful and meaningful ride.
The death of a woman brings two families together in Jayne Mansfield’s Car, the latest film written, directed and starring Billy Bob Thornton. She was the wife and mother to two families, the Caldwells in Alabama and the Bedfords of England. The patriarchs are played by Robert Duvall and John Hurt respectively, who first meet when they’ve been brought together for her burial in American soil.
The film is set during the ongoing Vietnam War, a possible direction for the youngest Caldwell men to take. Three generations are on display, the fathers and grandfather who have already taken part in World War I and II. These oversea turmoils of yesteryear are still affecting life on the homefront. Each of the men who have been scarred by war, whether emotionally or physically, are stagnant products of their generations. Duvall’s three sons are played by Thornton, Kevin Bacon and Robert Patrick who lead drastically different lives despite being citizens of the same small town. Bacon’s character is seen protesting the latest war at the film’s beginning and Duvall has to leave the local barbershop to confront him. It becomes clear in their first scene together that they don’t see eye to eye. This is mirrored in Bacon’s relationship with his own son.
Left alone, the Caldwells make for an incredibly dysfunctional and highly cinematic family. Introducing a step-family from across the pond piles on more material for the writers and actors to mine. When the Bedfords come to town, whose father and son are also vets, the film takes a turn into a “dramedy” of awkward conversations and hysterical antics. Jayne Mansfield’s Car is an odd film. It’s genre and tone seem to turn on a dime; its characters range from a deeply flawed and haunted father to the loud-mouthed used car salesman brother-in-law played by comedian Ron White. There’s humans and caricatures riding in Billy Bob’s car with, as Duvall put it in an interview, “Tennessee Williams in the back seat.”
Subjects and matter aside the film is stylistically unique, occasionally indulging itself into slow-mo music-set moments and montages that feel like something out of a Wes Anderson movie. There’s a post-script scene that appears after a classic crane shot and fade out that actually faked out critics at my screening who were already halfway out the door. It has the appearance of a predictable drama, but Jayne Mansfield’s Car, and it’s namesake scene for one example will certainly surprise you.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car gets a limited theatrical release this weekend and is currently available on select VOD services.
J.S. writes about all things film over on The Film Tome. Enter the tome and you will find reviews, news, trailer analyses, lists, essays, an official podcast and more.