Jayne Mansfield\'s Car review

Andrew Moraitis checked out Billy Bob Thornton\'s latest writing/directing effort at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and returned with mixed feelings.

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Billy Bob Thornton is a frustrating filmmaker. And it isn’t because the writer/director has done little of note since Sling Blade. Or that he’s vainly returning to more mature filmmaking after a series of ill-judged star vehicles like Mr. Woodcock or School for
Scoundrels
. Thornton has more pure writing talent than many Oscar-winning screenwriters, yet he lacks discipline in terms of structure. Those same talents and deficiencies are apparent in Jayne Mansfield’s Car, a flabby drama that also features a couple of phenomenal, Tennessee Williams-esque monologues.

Robert Duvall plays Jim Caldwell, an angry Southern patriarch who hasn’t forgiven his ex-wife for leaving him and their four children (Robert Patrick, Thornton, Kevin Bacon and Katherine Lanasa). When she passes away, her second husband (John Hurt) brings her body and his two children (Ray Stevenson and Frances O’Connor) to the funeral.

Although this might seem the set-up for a Western like Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories, Thornton settles for a melancholic drama, tempering the sometimes confronting material with character-driven gags. It’s too bad that the film struggles to maintain tonal
assurance. Clearly, he’s a better writer than he is a director, favouring a stolid visual style that is subservient to the unwieldy demands of the ambitious screenplay (some of his visual choices are bewildering, too, like an opening montage set in the local town, which is confusing considering the film rarely leaves the characters’ homes).

But damn he can write dialogue. Thornton (wisely?) gives himself the film’s best monologue, an amazing anti-war speech that compares silence to an ongoing tornado in his head (the comparison is better in the film, trust us). Certain confrontations, too, in which inadequate sons conflict with their overbearing fathers, register with a welcome lack of sentimentality, including one shocking sequence between Duvall and Thornton.

It’s frustrating, however, that Thornton didn’t show more discipline on a concept level, with the film unfurling languidly rather than progressing into an inevitable conclusion.

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