Jayne Mansfield’s Car is a triumphant return to directing for Billy Bob Thornton. It’s maybe not as monumental as Sling Blade, but it’s a fine piece of character work with an unmistakable Thornton touch.
Set in 1969 Alabama, the ensemble of characters includes Skip (Thornton), a WWII veteran who came home, literally to his father (Robert Duvall)’s place, and never left. His brother Caroll (Kevin Bacon) is protesting the Vietnam War, to his patriotic other brother Jimbo (Robert Patrick)’s disapproval.
The introductory scenes show that just watching these characters interact for two hours would be enough, but an impetus for conflict arrives when their mother dies. Mom’s been living in England so her British relatives come to Alabama for the funeral. Any scenes shot with Tippi Hedren must have been cut, because the mother is dead when the movie starts.
Mansfield’s is a much faster paced drama than Sling Blade. Each scene has some characters in conflict, at the dinner table, at a roadside crash side, during a phone call, all the way through the movie. It’s not a slow burn. Through the family drama we get a slice of life for this era between cultures and generations.
Yet this isn’t the typical anti-war civil rights slice of life. It’s Billy Bob Thornton, who also wrote the script with his frequent collaborator Tom Epperson. He explores more outrageous behavior, which still feels true, but it’s unique. You can’t say this represents how most people of the era or in a post-war/wartime situation would act, but it sure is fascinating.
It begins with some sexy corn chewing, so that’s how Thornton can fetishize a leading lady (Frances O’Connor). The Charge of the Light Brigade scene (you’ll know that’s the most appropriate way to identify the scene, spoiler-free) is sexual and hilarious, yet shocking. I don’t think Skip’s vulgar desires inform any deeper character, though his later dramatic scenes do. I just appreciate a good outrageous character in the first place.
As a director, Thorton has a powerful sense of play and intensity. He uses music for sure, and as soon as you hear the opening strains of Owen Easterling Hatfield’s score it feels like a Billy Bob Thornton movie. It’s also in the camera, editing and the way he just lets actors act. Maybe it’s because he’s an actor himself, but probably it’s just because he knows as a director that he’s got some good stuff if he just lets it happen.
The actors are considerably good. Duvall plays his patriarch as sensitive, but closed off from expression. Bacon is his intense best. Thornton chooses subtlety with a potentially outrageous character. O’Connor is a delight in the middle of all this and Patrick, as always, makes a potentially one-note character sympathetic.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car is a great chance to get back into the Billy Bob Thornton world. If he writes and/or directs a movie every few years like he used to, it will be a nice asset to the world of filmmaking. They don’t all have to be breakthroughs. They can just be solid entries in the oeuvre. Oh, and Jayne Mansfield’s car does appear in the movie, so it’s not that obscure a reference.