The Billy Bob Thornton who directed and starred in Sling Blade is back. Thornton even brought his long-time writing partner Tom Epperson in for their first collaboration since 2000's The Gift. While it seems unlikely their new low-key Southern drama Jayne Mansfield's Car will garner them any Oscars this time around, Thornton and Epperson are so successful at nailing that tone -- that flavor -- of Southern life that made their previous work so appealing that it is easy to forgive the creakier and more predictable mechanics of the movie's storytelling.
In 1969 Alabama, two families are brought together by the death of their shared matriarch. Decades before, she left her family in Alabama and married a dapper English gentleman. Her ex-husband Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall) has nursed a grudge ever since, and he is not looking forward to meeting the man who stole his wife away, Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt). However, despite some initial awkwardness, the Brits and the Southerners find common ground. Jim and Kingsley begin to bond over their fighting in WWI and, less explicitly, their shared hurt and shared love for the same woman.
Meanwhile, their middle-aged kids begin to fraternize. Hot rod enthusiast and ex-flyboy war hero Skip (Thornton) crudely hits on Camilla (Frances O'Connor), who indulges his infatuation with her accent and finds his simple-minded randomness intriguing. Jim's former beauty queen daughter Donna (Katherine LaNasa) runs away from her boorish husband (Ron White, perfectly adapting his stand-up comedy shtick to this role) to canoodle with Phillip (Ray Stevenson).
The families also mirror each other, in that the men at the head of the family expected their sons to become war heroes and make them proud, but instead they all fell short somehow. In addition to Skip, there is Carroll (Kevin Bacon), who was wounded in combat in WWII and is now an over-the-hill hippie, and Jimbo (Robert Patrick), who served but never saw any fighting. Phillip was captured and made a POW of the Japanese. With the Vietnam War raging in the East, the generation gap between the hawkish elders and their emotionally scarred children comes to the fore.
While nothing in the plot is particularly surprising (in fact, this is the second movie I've reviewed in the past two weeks where a character gets unwittingly dosed with psychedlics), Thornton allows the characters to bounce off each other and share their stories and bare their scars in a way that is consistently engrossing. He also gives himself the oddest role in the perfectly cast ensemble. It's not really a showy part either, despite a long monologue right around the halfway point. Like Karl Childers from Sling Blade, Skip seems a little "slow." But Skip is not mentally challenged; instead, he possesses an unusual mixture of childlike naivete and deep psychological hurt. It's a "real" piece of acting that helps one forget years of Thornton's dumbass choices, from playing Mr. Woodcock to asking an interviewer if he would pose the same questions to Tom Petty.
Thornton says in the bonus features that the film is about the desire to romanticize tragedy, typified by Jim Caldwell's fascination with car crashes and other violent accidents. When Jim invites Kingsley Bedford to check out an exhibit of the crashed car Jayne Mansfield died in, Jim already knows all the details of the accident and recites them blandly, as if retelling a sports score. As with everything in the movie, this seems less like an underlined Major Statement than just another well-observed detail. Thornton and Epperson's exploration of these themes is subtle and doesn't lead to a major catharsis or grandly overstated sermonizing. Instead, by the end of the film, the characters have opened themselves up to each other a bit more -- but just a little bit. The modesty of the storytelling resonates nonetheless, almost the same way that these two families from across the Atlantic so easily find common ground.
Instead there is just a 9-minute HD Behind The Scenes featurette that delves a little bit deeper than the standard EPK, but still only scratches the surface and doesn't really justify its existence.