Billy Bob Thornton’s career took off with the intimate, sparse Sling Blade, but he’s always had an epic streak to him; you sense that as a director, he yearns for a big canvas. When he gets one, though — as he did with his follow-up, All the Pretty Horses — the story and the scale seem to run away from him. In his first feature directorial effort in more than ten years, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, Thornton’s broad reach is still there, but it’s hidden inside a small-scale family drama set over the course of a few days. This modest, seemingly minor piece turns out to be a war movie in disguise.
The film, set in small-town Alabama in 1969, starts off briefly sketching the Caldwell clan. Hard-bitten patriarch Jim (an excellent Robert Duvall) is a moneyed good old boy mostly disappointed in his family: While straight-edge Jimbo (Robert Patrick) seems to have become a nice Southern proto-fascist like his dad, Carroll (Kevin Bacon) is a hippie who likes to lead antiwar protests down Main Street and Skip (Thornton) is a socially maladjusted oddball who’s more interested in his fancy cars than he is in people. Then, one day, comes a random phone call from England: Jim’s ex-wife, who ran off with a British man twenty years ago, has died, and she wants to be buried back home, among her people. So, her British family — husband Kingsley (John Hurt), and his kids Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and Camilla (Frances O’Connor) — arrive down South, where they will enter the dysfunctional and rambling world of the Caldwells.
It sounds simple and predictable enough, and as you might imagine, there’s the usual culture clash stuff, not to mention some flirting and tension and common-ground-finding — some of it comical, some of it earnest. But somewhere along the way, we begin to realize that all these characters are hopelessly scarred by war. Kingsley and Jim have hated each other for years, though they’ve never met, but the two men warm to each other over their shared World War I experiences. Part of Carroll’s aversion to Vietnam, we learn, comes from his time during WWII; Skip’s inability to handle people is rooted in the fact that, as a Navy pilot, he wound up with horrific burns all over his body. Kingsley’s son Phillip, on the other hand, spent most of the war in a Japanese POW camp. Meanwhile, the younger generation of Caldwells wrestles with the specter of the draft and of living up to the family example of wartime sacrifice.
This shared background of pain becomes the organizing principle behind Jayne Mansfield’s Car. The title refers to the ghastly 1967 Louisiana car wreck that claimed the legendary Hollywood bombshell; old Jim, a former Army medic, has a morbid fascination with fatal car crashes, and often goes out in the middle of the night seeking them out. Like the rest of his family, he’s stuck in a closed psychological loop, watching the world for signs of pain while seemingly remaining oblivious to his own family’s.
This emotional through line is poignant, but it’s also narratively challenging. Jayne Mansfield’s Car is loose, episodic, vignette-driven: There’s no real story here, other than the Caldwells’ revelation of their inner (and outer) scars to a group of outsiders, and even that is often done in an allusive, elusive way. When Skip and Camilla get together, he makes her recite a poem naked; it turns out be Tennyson’s ode to military sacrifice, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” When she asks him to return the favor and recite some Tennessee Williams, the South’s great poet of trauma and memory, he instead reveals to her his scars and offers up a touching monologue about the incident that nearly killed him.
The film is filled with such moments — theatrical, but never stagy. Thornton has assembled a dream cast, but it goes further than that. Guys like Bacon, Hurt, and Stevenson (and, let’s face it, Thornton himself) regularly show up in all sorts of films, competently phoning in paycheck gigs. Here, though, despite the small scale of the film and the rough, predictable outlines of the story, Thornton has inspired these veterans to turn in great work — a welcome reminder that his is a directorial voice that’s been gone for too long. Jayne Mansfield’s Car isn’t likely to set America’s theaters on fire, but it’s a powerful whisper of a film.