Every generation gets its own version of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but “1922” — writer-director Zak Hilditch’s workmanlike adaptation of the novella by Stephen King — almost certainly is the first iteration of Edgar Allen Poe’s classic story to include voracious rodents, hapless cows and a Bonnie and Clyde-like pair of young bank robbers.
Hilditch deserves credit for generating and sustaining suspense throughout a slow-burning drama that is more fatalistically tragic than traditionally horrific, and for delivering the goods when old-fashioned shocks are called for. In fact, it’s no small measure of the movie’s overall effectiveness that one can easily overlook, if not unreservedly forgive, a few fleeting moments when vermin balanced on their hind legs are only marginally scarier than the rodent gourmet in “Ratatouille.”
Right from the start, we know things aren’t going to turn out well for Wilfred James (Thomas Jane), a haggard and haunted fellow who checks into an inelegant Omaha hotel and proceeds to describe, in frantic scribblings and raspy narration, terrible events that occurred a few years earlier. In 1922, Wilfred is a hardworking but none-too-successful Nebraska farmer who finds himself under increasing pressure from Arlette (Molly Parker), his discontented wife, to sell their spread — or at least the 100 acres she brought to the marriage — and move to the big city. But Wilfred is loath to uproot (“Cities,” he claims with unshakable conviction, “are for fools!”), and his irascibility is amped when Arlette indicates that her Plan B involves divorce, a forced sale of the farm and her claiming sole custody of Henry (Dylan Schmid), their 14-year-old son.
Jane is very good at conveying a toxic mix of taciturn rage and amoral calculation as Wilfred plots to murder his troublesome spouse. And he’s even better at adopting the authoritative tone of a tough-loving Old Testament father figure while the farmer methodically persuades his son that homicide (or, in Henry’s case, matricide) is entirely justified. Henry reluctantly comes around to his father’s point of view, primarily because Wilfred knows the right button to push: If his mom takes him away, Henry will be separated from his sweetheart, Shannon (Kaitlyn Bernard), the young daughter of Harlan (Neal McDonough), a far more successful neighboring farmer.
The actual killing of Arlette is rendered with a blunt-force savagery that underscores what emerges as the underlying theme of “1922” — murder is not merely a terrible crime, but an unforgivable mortal sin that will forever curse its perpetrators. (Ironically, Wilfred chooses to stab his sleeping wife, and slit her throat, because smothering her with a pillow might be “too painful.”) In developing this idea, Hilditch takes his cue from King’s novella and neatly balances standard-issue horror-movie tropes (Wilfred is periodically visited by Arlette’s rotting corpse and real or imagined hungry rats) with subtler and more discomforting scenes illustrating unappeasable guilt, mournful regret and resigned acceptance of damnation.
While Wilfred copes with psychological and physical pain (one of the very real rats bites his hand, with predictably awful results) in snowbound isolation, Henry runs off with the pregnant Shannon and launches a crime spree that suggests a grim determination that, after you help kill your mother, you’re irredeemably unmoored from petty concerns about right and wrong.
“1922” has a smattering of darkly comical moments, most notably a shocking-funny scene in which one of the aforementioned cows is used to hide Arlette’s corpse. Unfortunately, there are a few unintentionally comical moments as well, most of them (though not all) featuring trained rats that are supposed to be terrifying. Hilditch doesn’t use the cruel final twist of King’s novel, which arguably is an audience-friendly act of mercy. But what he offers in its place is something that would have been more appropriate for the seriocomic King-scripted “Creepshow.”
Still, “1922” — one of two King adaptations (along with “Gerald’s Game”) having its world premiere at Fantastic Fest this year — is strong enough to bear the weight of occasional miscalculations.
Jane persuasively devolves into madness, or something like it, as the hidebound and rawboned Wilfred, while Schmid and Bernard are aptly sympathetic in their supporting roles. Parker adds a sprinkling of playful sauciness to her otherwise tightly wound portrayal of Arlette, and McDonough works emotionally impactful wonders while underplaying Harlan’s final confrontation with Jane. Better still, the period detail is unassumingly impressive in this Netflix production, which uses Vancouver locations as reasonable substitutes for urban and rural Nebraska.