Jayne Mansfield’s Car, a heartfelt look at the cyclical nature of wartime trauma on two families, one from Alabama and the other from England, in 1969 is Thornton’s first narrative feature film behind the camera in over ten years. It features fine performances and some exquisitely crafted scenes, but the lack of communication on the part of the characters threatens to try half the audience’s patience, and his occasional tendency to succumb to blunt melodrama might put off the other half. If you escape either classification, there will be still be little denying that parts of Jayne Mansfield’s Car are off-puttingly weird.
Thornton stars alongside Robert Duvall, Robert Patrick and Kevin Bacon as the patriarchs of the Caldwell clan. The Alabama natives barely talk except to bare a grievance. Thornton and Bacon served in World War II, and the experiences turned them into a laconic eccentric and a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War (with all the drug use that typically implies), respectively. Patrick stayed home and, alone amongst his brothers, has a healthy family despite his obvious meanness.
The fact that the only son who wasn’t a war hero is the only one who turned out, from all outside appearances, more or less okay is a source of constant confusion to their father, Duvall, who served with honor in World War I and now spends his retirement visiting the scenes of violent traffic accidents to imagine how the victims must have felt the moment before they died.
The phone rings and announces that Duvall’s ex-wife has died, and wanted to be buried in her home town, so her newer, British family – husband John Hurt and stepchildren Ray Stevenson and Frances O’Connor – journey across the pond to say goodbye to their mother and meet, for the first time, the family she left behind.
Billy Bob Thornton and his frequent co-writer Tom Epperson have given ample opportunity for the Jayne Mansfield’s Car cast to soliloquize, romanticize, unburden their souls and purge loving emotions long thought lost. Thornton saved the showiest role for himself – a PTSD suffering ex-Navy pilot who lives through his cars and shares an unusual relationship with the surprisingly open-minded O’Connor character – but Stevenson nearly runs away with the whole movie as a giant man shrunk with shame after spending World War II as a P.O.W., to his father’s obvious disappointment.
But the writers have also structured the story around contrived dramatic moments involving adultery, spiking drinks with acid and begging for paternal approval. The stranger scenes – such as one where Billy Bob Thornton masturbates while O’Connor, naked, recites Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” – are more noteworthy for their unusualness than for their connection to the film’s pervasive themes of familial expectation, communication and recovery. Jayne Mansfield’s actual car does make an appearance, and it is certainly a metaphor, but it feels largely unnecessary; the film is far more effective in its understated moments, like a beautiful scene of reconciliation between Stevenson and Hurt while Patrick screams epithets as his own son in the background, than when it wallows in its most overt symbology.
But a uniformly fine cast and some infrequent moments of storytelling genius keep Jayne Mansfield’s Car steady most of the time, and the conversation it raises about the impact of global conflict on a family unit is worth getting into. It feels unfortunate that Thornton’s film gets so often distracted with its own quirks – like an unusually dramatic score that pops in-and-out, seemingly, whenever it would seem strangest – that it diffuses the more human, simple and touching course of events that is really in motion.