Jayne Mansfield’s Car

jayne mansfields carThis 2012 dramatic film, written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, looks at the effects of war on two families. Set in 1969 in the little town of Morrison, Alabama, the film revolves around the death of Naomi Bedford.  A fascinating woman with a wanderlust, she was first married to Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall) and had four children with him, Jimbo (Robert Patrick), Skip (Thornton), Carroll (Kevin Bacon), and Donna (Katherine LaNasa) before running away to England, where she married Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt), who had two children of his own, Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and Camilla (Frances O’Connor).

Before her death, she had requested burial in Alabama, so the Bedfords come to Morrison for the funeral. Jim, the Caldwell patriarch, has hated Kingsley from afar without ever knowing him and the relationship between the two families is quite chilly until Kingsley faints at the funeral and is rushed to the hospital because his children believe that he’s had a heart attack.  Seeing the old man so defenseless opens Jim up and he begins a tentative friendship with Kingsley centered on their similar experiences during World War I.  That friendship is cemented further when their opinions on the hippies protesting the Vietnam war coincide.

Jimbo, Skip, and Carroll all served during World War II, but Jimbo never saw any action and has no medals. Skip was a pilot who was shot down over Guadalcanal and Carroll also served in the Pacific.  Both are well-decorated, but both are sympathetic to the war protesters.  In fact, Skip has grown his hair long, takes drugs, and is a leader in the protests, which angers their father.  Skip is currently urging his own son, Mickey (John Patrick Amedori) to get into college so he can avoid the draft.  Jimbo’s son, Alan (Marshall Allman) is still living at home, but sympathizes with the protesters and wants to begin using drugs.

Donna’s husband, Neil (Ron White) a loud-mouthed former football player who own several car dealerships in Atlanta, stays for the funeral, but then returns home, leaving Donna to flirt with Phillip. Skip, a loner, finds himself attracted to Camilla, partly because of her beauty, but partly because of her English accent.

This is the palette that Thornton uses to create a deep, sensative meditation on the effects of war and violence. The heroism of Jim, Kingsley, Skip, and Carroll is held in sharp contract to that of Phillip and Jimbo.  Phillip had also served in the Pacific during World War II, but his unit was taken by the Japanese and he spent his time trying to survive as a prisoner of war.  Kingsley sees this as cowardice and rips his son on it, yet that survival was a war in itself that the older man can’t understand.  Jimbo, serving in supply, never saw action and always feels himself less of a man than his father and brothers.

There is a scene between Thornton and O’Connor where he tells her about how he was shot down and received burns over 90% of his body that is one of the most gripping I’ve ever seen. Thornton’s honey southern drawl undercuts the raw action of unbuttoning his shirt for her, slowly revealing the billowing burned flesh underneath.  It is brilliant and beautiful all at once.  Thornton has another amazing scene where he confronts Duvall over his father’s lack of love as he grew up and he is wearing his medals pinned directly to his naked chest.

Although there are a few moments when I thought the film might be taking itself too seriously, overall it is a taut, compelling movie. Every single performance represents a little bit of acting perfection.  Duvall, Hurt, Thornton, and Bacon give amazing performances, nuanced, and full of depth–and all of the supporting actors are excellent.

The script, by Thornton and Tom Epperson is deep and moving. It hearkens back to the splendid southern dramas of Tennessee Williams, where you find deeply hurt old men, passionate young men, and steamy women all coming together into a kind of psychological gestalt.  And there is some humor, although it could use a little more to break up the drama.

When this movie was released in 2012, most reviewers completely missed the beauty of it. That is one serious issue with writers having to see a film once and sit down and write about it without having the patina of time to allow the nuance to fully sink in.  This is a movie that should age well, like old bourbon and taste even better in the years to come.  It certainly should mark Billy Bob Thornton as a master filmmaker, a terrific writer, a fine director, and a great actor.

If you haven’t seen it–and you like film drama–this is a must see movie!

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