Monday, December 9, 2013

Blu-ray/DVDebut: Billy Bob Thornton's exquisite JAYNE MANSFIELD'S CAR combines a fine family tale with superb acting and a quiet, leisurely pace

Another overlooked gem of a film that came and went from theaters in a flash, JAYNE MANSFIELD'S CAR dishes up the best work, as a writer and director, that Billy Bob Thornton has given us since Sling Blade. In fact, this is a better film than Sling Blade, quieter and less obvious, with themes that are larger and more inclusive, offering an extended-family canvas that is enormous and yet gives every character the opportunity to live via performers who make each moment real and meaningful. Mr. Thornton (shown below and in some of the stills further below) has both directed and co-written (with Tom Epperson of One False Move), while taking on one of the leading leading roles. He shines in all three realms.

Thornton allows everyone else to shine, too, and he and his casting directors, Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu, have assembled an ensemble that is as good as any seen all year (maybe several). But this triple threat's biggest achievement lies in his writing and direction, where his ability to suggest outdoes many directors' lesser ability to flog their points home. From the film's title (which plays into things quietly, cursorily) onwards, how Thornton and Epperson manage to bring forth and connect so many important themes and ideas (regarding family, the gap between generations, brotherly competition and bonding, and war and its remains, with particular stress on U.S. involvement in Vietnam and its effect on the populace at large) is quite impressive.

The dialog here is always on point, even as it grows discursive. It sounds real as hell, yet it's never "showy." While there are occasional flashes of humor and wit, it doesn't strain to be funny. (I wonder if the movie version of August: Osage County will work this well?) Along with this comes Thornton's penchant for pacing, which here seems near perfect. Yes, this is a southern family tale, so we might expect things to move a little slowly, yet so keen with camera and composition (the cinematographer is Barry Markowitz) is our filmmaker that the leisurely pace works wonders. (This is a very beautiful film to watch, as well: the colors, the verdant outdoors, the splendid faces on view.)

The plot takes in but a few days in the family's life in 1969, when its sort-of British branch (mama had run off years before to London, where she met and then married a British fellow (played by John Hurt, above) arrives to celebrate and honor a death.

The American paterfamilias (Robert Duvall, shown in photo at bottom), his three sons (Kevin Baconabove, right; Robert Patrick, center, and Thornton, at left) and daughter (Katherine LaNasa,shown below, right) along with various in-laws and kids, welcome the Brits (who includes Hurt's children, played very well by Rome's  Ray Stevenson and A.I.'s Frances O'Connor) with everything from interest and anger to foreboding and hope.

Vietnam War protests, generational clashes, and lots of father-son enmity and love surface as the two family branches collide and merge, and it's all funny, moving and alternately surprising and pleasantly predictable.

Of all the film's themes, it seems to this viewer that the destructiveness of war takes precedence, which makes the movie's final moments between Bacon and John Patrick Amedori (who plays his son) particularly rich and moving. Here, that theme comes full circle and front-and-center, as the parent/child divide when sons must go their own way, to whatever destination, is made plain.

From Anchor Bay Entertainment, and running two hours and two minutes (not one of which I think you'd want to lose), the DVD and Blu-ray hit the streets tomorrow, Tuesday. December 10.

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