Billy Bob Thornton is such a great director and it is a shame he hasn’t made more films since “Daddy And Them” back in 2001. “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is his return to the director’s chair and it is another fine achievement.
The film is set in 1969, amid the backdrop of social unrest over the Vietnam War, and it is about two families who come together for the funeral of the same woman, Naomi. One family is the Caldwell’s, who live in Southern USA, while the Bedford’s have come from England. Jim Caldwell was Naomi’s first husband and with him she had three sons, Carroll, Jimbo and Skip and a daughter, Donna. Back in the 40’s, Naomi abandoned her family when she met by chance Kingsley Bedford on a holiday in the U.K. After getting a divorce from Jim, she soon married Kingsley and lived in England with him until her death. The two had no children together although Kingsley has both a son and a daughter, Phillip and Camilla, to a previous marriage. Naomi requested that when she passed to be buried back in the USA with the rest of her family and her wish is granted. During their stay in the United States, Jim Caldwell and his family host the Bedford family, as they all try to get along despite the obvious tensions. The family dynamics of each are very powerful as both father’s turn out to be very hard on their sons. They are both veterans of the first World War and both strong supporters of the war in Vietnam. Carroll, Jim’s son, is dead set against the war (despite being a war hero himself) which creates immeasurable tension amongst father and son. Over the three days the families are together, friendships are made and tensions boil over, but the event of the funeral starts a series of events that finally see the family members really talk to one another for the first time in years helping mend relationships that have been damaged over the years.
“Jayne Mansfield’s Car” has been immaculately put together. The script that was written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson is just so genuine and real. There does not feel like a false moment throughout the entire film. Relationships between the characters are well defined and the tensions between them palpable. The father-son dynamics and themes of war are weaved beautifully into the story and never feel forced. When resolutions are reached by the end of the film, they never dwell in sentimentality but rather are grounded in reality and emotionally true.
The acting is all impeccable with everyone giving beautifully even and nuanced performances. With such a large cast of characters, it never feels like anyone is trying to outshine anyone else in an attempt to get a moment of glory or extra screen time. Instead they all work wonderfully within the story and it is riveting. This is a perfect example of how an ensemble cast should work together. The cast is largely male dominated with veteran actors like John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick and Billy Bob Thornton himself filling out the roles, and they have never been better. However it is the performance from Robert Duvall as the tough as nails and emotionally cold father of the Caldwell family that impresses most. It is such a beautifully layered performance full of complex emotions (even when the majority of those emotions are bottled up) and eventually pathos.
Directorially Billy Bob Thornton has once again done a fantastic job. His talents behind the camera are so special that it really is a shame he hasn’t directed more features. There is a moment in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” that may be the single best and best directed moment I have seen at the film festival this year. It is a moment that depicts each characters movements or actions the night before the funeral, it is shot in slow motion and set perfectly to music, it is just sublime and so full of emotion. I was so moved by this one moment and impressed by Billy Bob Thornton’s masterful control of the scene. “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is worth seeing just for these two minutes of film.
What saddens me about “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is that we are now living in a world where a film like this has no chance of receiving a wide release. How I wish it was more like the 70’s when a character based drama was actually appreciated and seen.
Overall I was very impressed by Billy Bob Thornton’s “Jayne Mansfield’s Car”. It has a beautifully realized and rich script with amazing performances from everyone involved and it is just a powerful cinema experience. I was so moved by the absolutely devastating final shot of Kevin Bacon and the film was a whole. Incidentally, the title refers to when the actual car that Jayne Mansfield died in is brought to town as an attraction for the paying public.