Back in 1996, when Sling Blade came out, not only had no one heard of Billy Bob Thornton, the whole concept of regional cinema hadn’t been developed yet. Independent filmmaking was still centered largely in New York, which meant that if you lived outside the nation’s big cities, you didn’t see movies about the place where you lived unless some Hollywood project happened to take an interest. Thornton wasn’t by any means the first filmmaker to set his independent movie in a rural area. Nevertheless, the critical and financial success of Sling Blade demonstrated that large numbers of people would see and respond to a handcrafted film that was tied to a specific part of America. You can plausibly argue that without Sling Blade, there would be no Wendy and Lucy, no Winter’s Bone, no Beasts of the Southern Wild, no Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. For that reason alone, Billy Bob Thornton is assured of his place in movie history.
Alas, Sling Blade also now looks like a one-off success. Thornton followed up his first feature as a director with a somnolent 2000 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, and since that movie’s commercial and critical failure, his output has been sporadic and hard to find as he has focused on his estimable acting career. Jayne Mansfield’s Car, which opened last year’s Lone Star International Film Festival and is just this week opening at AMC Grapevine Mills, is the first non-documentary that Thornton has directed in 12 years, and while it has some remarkable things, it also gives some clues as to why his career as a filmmaker hasn’t lasted.
The movie is set in Alabama in 1969, as Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall) receives the news that his ex-wife (played by Tippi Hedren in a brief flashback) has passed away in England. Before dying, she expressed a wish to be buried in her native soil, so her English second husband Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt) ventures to the South along with his relatives to deliver her body to the funeral.
Thornton reunites with his Sling Blade writing partner Tom Epperson for the script here, but where Sling Blade gained sharpness from concentrating on its main character’s interactions with everybody else, this movie doesn’t have the benefit of a focal point. With at least 12 fully fleshed-out characters, Thornton struggles to accommodate them all, and this sprawling generational saga can’t help but emerge as hopelessly overstuffed. If that’s not enough, Jim and Kingsley are both World War I veterans, while Jim’s two older sons (played by Thornton and Kevin Bacon) served in the Second World War. That’s a lot of shell-shocked veterans wandering around the Caldwell house, and too much of the movie just seems to be in the same numbed state as these men are.
Actor that he is, Thornton does love his fellow thespians, and so he gives extended monologues to Bacon (anguishing about a letter he wrote to his dad), Hurt (reminiscing about the first time he met his wife), and himself (describing the experience of being wounded in the line of duty). These are all exceptionally well-played, and Hurt’s famously reedy, high-pitched speaking voice fits his wistful romantic speech well. While Duvall doesn’t get a showpiece, he still delivers a fine performance as a man struggling to understand his adult sons (including the youngest, played by Robert Patrick, who’s eaten up with jealousy over not having served in the military). I’d be remiss not to mention Ron White, the stand-up comic who toured with Jeff Foxworthy’s Blue Collar Comedy Tour, here providing some badly needed comic relief as a Caldwell son-in-law. White is the spitting image of a chatty, backslapping former football star-turned-used car salesman, and amid this starry cast, he manages to steal every scene he’s in.
These are great, but Thornton isn’t able to provide a worthy framework for these performances. All the speeches stop the movie in its tracks all too frequently. Thornton has expressed his disinterest in theater in the past, but it seems to me that his talents as a writer might be better suited to the stage. Either that, or he needs to find a better director.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car
Starring Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, and Billy Bob Thornton. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton. Written by Tom Epperson and Billy Bob Thornton. Rated R.