Director: Billy Bob Thornton
Starring: Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick, John Hurt, Ray Stevenson
In Alabama in 1969, a wealthy, Southern family is rocked by the news that their mother, who left many years ago and re-married, has passed away and her new family is coming over from England to bury her in the town where she was born.
That’s the set up, but it doesn’t really matter because in Jayne Mansfield’s Car the story isn’t really the focus. It is a film about characters and interactions and relationships. Thematically it is a film about our relationship with life and death, about family, and about changing notions of courage and heroism, particularly in relation to war. The film’s title comes from a ghoulish sideshow attraction which visits their town, peaking the interest of patriarch Jim who has a morbid fascination with car accidents, and serves as a metaphor for the American impulse to try and glamorise death.
Director Billy Bob Thornton is better known as an actor and Jayne Mansfield’s Car is very much an actors’ movie. The film is very wordy, made up of numerous scenes of dramatic monologues and dialogues. This gives the impressive ensemble cast – including Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick and Thornton himself – plenty of chances to flex their acting muscles. Unfortunately, while there are some very solid individual performances, particularly from Duvall and Thornton, the cast never really knits together to make a believable family. Likewise, while some of these dramatic scenes are very interesting, they don’t really combine to make a whole of any great substance.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car is very slow and feels much longer than its two hour running time. The lack of a central narrative thread means that your engagement with the film really goes through peaks and troughs. Too heavy handed at times and too vague at others, it never quite hits the mark, always striving for a level of emotion that isn’t quite there.
Rating – ★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean