One of the most maddening aspects of Billy Bob Thornton’s Jayne Mansfield’s Car — and this is a film filled with maddening moments — is the definite presence of intellect and heart that occasionally makes itself known, rising from the dirt and mud around it for an instant before being kicked away again. Thornton, who co-wrote and directed the film and stars as one of its fractured ensemble, is anything but stupid, and there are times when he crafts revelations and connections so genuinely human and hopeful and empathetic and sad that just watching them feels like a fresh experience. Loving film means always looking for new expressions of the same stories, and Thornton occasionally unearths moments of real grace. At one of the film’s turning points, Thornton’s character, a simple and shellshocked man still struggling to come to peace with his memories of war, delivers an eloquent soliloquy to a woman he likes about how he found himself going to war in the first place. He talks about loving just the idea of flying, and how he could imagine himself in the blue and the quiet, and as he talks he unbuttons his shirt to reveal a pattern of burn scars covering his torso from neck to waist, and his arms to the wrist. He tells her it wasn’t supposed to be like this, and about the fire that nearly took his life and completely took his sense of safety. It’s a startling, uncomfortable, above all human moment about the force that drives everyone: the drive to connect. What robs the moment of true power, though, is that it’s a bookend to an earlier courtship scene with the same two characters. (I’m using “courtship” here as loosely as possible.) In that earlier scene, Thornton’s character, smitten by the English accent of his desired beloved, asks if he can listen to her recite something epic while he masturbates. She’s (understandably) nonplussed, but she eventually OKs the idea, so one of their first major scenes together involves her trumpeting “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the nude while he fervently masturbates, rocking back and forth on a sofa and biting his lip so hard that a dark rivulet of blood runs to his chin.
This is not, you might gather, an enjoyable thing to witness. Everything about it hums with desperation, and Thornton’s desire to stage something “edgy” or “different” shouts down any possible semblance of logic, emotion, or character development. That’s basically Jayne Mansfield’s Car through and through: split between things that connect and things that miss wildly. The balance is tipped heavily in favor of the misses, too. Thornton’s ensemble never gels, his various plots never come together, his individual plots never really develop, and he undercuts himself at every turn by being almost clinically unable to go more than two or three minutes without staging some random bit of ugliness that seems designed more to fit some nebulous idea of “confrontational” than to speak to the truth of these people in the moment. The best you can say about the film is that it’s a mess, but the most honest thing you can say is that the mess isn’t worth dealing with. There are some good moments here, and a solid idea or two, but not enough to justify wading through the muck to find them.
The heart of the film deals with a few broad themes, chiefly generational and international culture clashes and the American glamorization or war. Totally workable premises, and evergreen, to boot. The problem is that Thornton never finds a way to make them feel of a piece. Thornton sets the film in small-town Alabama in 1969, and he centers the story on the fractious Caldwell clan: patriarch Jim (Robert Duvall), a retired World War I medic with a fetish for car crashes and accidents; son Jimbo (Robert Patrick), who backs his father’s hawkish opinions; son Carroll (Kevin Bacon), who became a hippie and a war protester after returning from World War II; son Skip (Thornton), shot down over Guadalcanal; and daughter Donna (Katherine LaNasa), who’s killing time in an unhappy marriage to a car salesman (Ron White). They’re all mired in familial conflict — Jimbo, who never saw combat, is jealous of the action Skip and Carroll experienced, even though fighting clearly damaged them both — and things get worse when their absent mother dies. Jim’s wife, Naomi, left him years before for an Englishman, and her final requests included interment in Alabama. As a result, the Caldwells soon find themselves playing host to their long-gone mother’s second husband, Kingsley (John Hurt), and his children Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and Camilla (Frances O’Connor). They grate against each other at first — Donna’s husband delivers an impressively daft series of jokes and stereotypes about England — but they soon morph into one giant poisoned organism once it’s made clear that Phillip’s also still fighting his own ghosts from the war, and that all the boys are looking for approval from their fathers.
As a result, the movie doesn’t so much have a through-line as it does a few ideas it keeps bringing up again and again, usually in awkwardly placed monologues. Jimbo idealizes war because he’s never been, so they fight about it. Jim’s embarrassed that Carroll’s embarrassed of Vietnam, so they fight about it. Kingsley mocks Phillip for being taken prisoner when he could have slipped into the jungle to wage a one-man guerilla war against the enemy, so they fight about it. You see where this is going (or, rather, where this is staying, spinning its wheels). Thornton’s dedicated to his vision, but that vision unfortunately lacks narrative drive and basic cause and effect. Ironically, for a film so thematically haunted by the consequences of our actions, the story doesn’t seem concerned with consequence at all. Fights are had, affairs are conducted, and relationships are broken and rebuilt, but rarely do the characters deal with anything resembling human emotion. Things just happen, and then they happen some more, and then you wonder when they’ll finally be done.
That’s it. There is no narrative or emotional moment toward which the film builds, no scene upon which it hinges, no basic story goal toward which it even tries to crawl. Rather, Thornton, feeling very much an actor’s director, is content to glide around and start and stop scenes haphazardly, letting them play out long enough to give a performer an opportunity to chew the walls a little. The cast is talented, too, and far more nimble than the sluggish story they’ve been given. Thornton, directing himself, has most of the choice moments, though LaNasa and Stevenson are close seconds; she’s equal parts sexually aggressive and emotionally turbulent, and he’s torn between being a good son and hating his father for looking down on him. The turgid plot itself meanders around until it gets tired, then stops a while to rest. The titular car, supposedly the one Mansfield was riding in when she died, shows up as a traveling sideshow late in the game, another symbol of the way Americans commercialize death and celebrate the gruesome. But it feels almost like an afterthought, something that got in the way of all the speechifying, and it’s gone in a moment. Looking down at the crumpled metal, you get the feeling you’re supposed to feel something, but what, you’re not sure. Thornton doesn’t seem to know, either, or at least he’s not interested in telling, and in the end it’s the same thing.