Directed by Billy Bob Thornton, who hasn’t directed a feature film in over ten years, and starring a wealth of talented Hollywood actors, Jayne Mansfield’s Car is one of the most anticipated films at this year’s Berlinale and is also in Competition. Set in Alabama in 1969 it tells the story of the Caldwell family who comprise of father Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall), a distant war veteran with a penchant for examining car wrecks, and his three sons, Skip (Billy Bob Thornton), Carroll (Kevin Bacon) and Jimbo (Robert Patrick) and daughter Donna (Katherine LaNasa). Jim learns of the death of his ex-wife and mother of his children, who was re-married and living in England, but requested to be buried in Alabama. So, with the funeral to take place in Alabama, the English family, the Bedfords, travel to America and meet the Caldwells. What follows is a clash of cultures and an exploration of a family in crisis with old wounds being opened due to the death and also the Vietnam protests reaching the Southern states.
With a multitude of characters, three generations of Caldwell’s and the Bedfords, there is plenty going on in this drama which examines the aftermath of war on individuals who were involved in the First and Second World Wars and the imminent possibly of serving in the Vietnam War. To begin with the film really focuses on the awkwardness between the two families and is tonally rather light but as the film progresses and we learn of each man’s own war-related trauma, things get much more serious. This juxtaposition of awkward comedy and contemplative and emotional scenes regarding war and death unfortunately doesn’t really work. The audience that I watched this film with laughed a lot all the way through, obviously missing the emotional undercurrents at play and due to the frivolous nature of a lot of it, it is difficult to take things seriously. One particular scene where the father’s iced tea is spiked with acid loses all its emotional depth due to the ridiculousness of the situation.
There are some genuinely poignant moments though, usually involving Thornton’s Skid, who is movingly reduced to a childlike state at the funeral of his mother. The English family are cringe inducing stereotypes, their extremely posh English accents adding to the clichéd way Americans depict Brits. John Hurt is great as patriarch Kingsley Bedford though, appearing as a fragile old man to begin with and then revealing his callous side after a few too many whiskies, whereas Duvall’s Jim does the opposite.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car does have some funny parts and the dialogue is great. The characters are likeable and the three Caldwell brothers are particularly good. Bacon is brilliant as the weed smoking anti-war protesting Carroll and Robert Patrick is equally good as the son who resents his brothers as he didn’t go to war. Skid is the most complex out of the three and it is him we follow the most throughout the film. Thornton successfully captures the look and feel of the era and colours and music are used to great effect.
Jim’s fascination with car wrecks takes him to the exhibited real car that actress Jayne Mansfield died in and this inventive symbol for war runs through the film, Skid at one point commenting that he “never wanted to see wrecks” when talking about the war and Kingsley philosophically stating that “we all have a crash of some sort awaiting us” .
With recurring themes of cars, aeroplanes and war this film has a very masculine feel and the stand out characters are the males, the two female characters not having much to say or do, other than to listen to the men opening up about their feelings and emotions. However, each journey of each character, which is initiated by the death, is interesting and the conclusion is satisfactory.
This is a watchable film about a dysfunctional family with some enjoyable moments but it lacks tonal consistency. Some of the characters are brilliantly written and acted out, with Thornton giving himself the best character, but others feel stereotypical and one dimensional. A subpar drama attempting to address too much.
Director: Billy Bob Thornton
Writer: Tom Epperson (screenplay) and Billy Bob Thornton (screenplay and script)
Stars: Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Billy Bob Thornton
Runtime: 122 mins