As a title, 'Jayne Mansfield's Car' may or may not pique viewers' interest, depending on how well acquainted he or she is with the actress' body of work or, more specifically, her untimely death at the age of 34 in a tragic automobile accident. But as a symbol, Jayne Mansfield's car is a slightly more opaque, yet possibly profound (but probably not) metaphor for two families coming together to mourn a wife and mother who abruptly left one clan behind and moved to England to be with another.
The movie marks a return to directing for Billy Bob Thornton (who also co-wrote and co-stars in the film), as he was last behind the camera with the Willie Nelson documentary 'The King of Luck' in 2011, and before that he hadn't directed anything since the 2001 feature 'Daddy and Them.' It also features a top-notch cast that includes Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, John Hurt, Ray Stevenson, and Frances O'Connor as members of the disparate, yet intrinsically linked families who gather in the American South in the tumultuous year of 1969 to bury and mourn the one connection between them.
And while there is certainly something to the story of Duvall's ex-wife running off with John Hurt and leaving her three sons and a daughter, Skip (Thornton), Carroll (Bacon), and Jimbo (Robert Patrick) and Donna (Katherine LaNasa) behind to live a new life, much of 'Jayne Mansfield's Car' is actually about the lasting effects of the horrors of war, and how those who fight, and are lucky enough to return, often do so as a shell of the person they once were. The movie plays this up the most in Skip and Carroll, who each take drastically different approaches to dealing with the post traumatic stresses of what they encountered, and the lasting psychological damage they endured. Carroll has become a protester and part of the counterculture movement, which, as the film depicts, was a recipe for disaster and disownment in the South at the time. Meanwhile Skip has ostensibly gone off the deep end; his mind and body ravaged by his time as a pilot, he's prone to listening to underground radio programs in the middle of the night, and working on the cars he equates with fighter planes that no one else is allowed to drive. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Jimbo, who although enlisted, never saw combat, and holds a deeply humiliated grudge against his brothers for that fact.
Most of the Caldwells live under the same roof, which allows all their eccentricities to come to light, especially with Jimbo's overbearing, but passively ignored wife Vicky (Shawnee Smith) constantly reminding everyone who she is and why she's important. There're some kids running around, too: Alan (Marshall Allman, 'True Blood' & 'Blue Like Jazz') and Mickey (John Patrick Amedori, 'The Last Stand'), as sons of Jimbo and Carroll, respectively. All of this adds up to a lot of men in a small space, without much of a female voice. And it seems that Thornton and his co-writer Tom Epperson intended this to play into the emotionally stunted family dynamic, suggesting without the presence of a someone with the capability to love and nurture, these men's troubles and idiosyncrasies have somehow become magnified, leading them further and further away from the people they once were.
With all that's going on at the Caldwell house, one would assume the introduction of the interloping Bedfords – i.e., Kingsley (Hurt), Camilla (O'Connor), and Philip (Stevenson) – would open up more wounds and generate a sense of conflict between the two families, but instead 'Jayne Mansfield's Car' takes a surprising turn and moves toward the idea of finding peace and resolution against the encroaching backdrop of the Vietnam War. This all seems like fairly heavy stuff, but tonally speaking 'Jayne Mansfield's Car' runs the gamut from black comedy, when Donna shows up with her drunken husband Neal (played to typecast perfection by Ron White), and immediately begins to seduce Philip, to delving into Lynchian levels of surrealism with a strange, barely lucid moment featuring a nude Frances O'Connor putting on a recital for an oddly placid Billy Bob that later segues into an admission from his past that's both tragic and a little off-putting.
It's never boring, but with all that's going on, the film struggles to find a singular voice. At times it seems to wants to focus on the eccentric families, while at others it wants to be about the lingering effects of war, and yet there's also thread about the destructive nature of resentment and bitterness, and the substantive relief that can come from forgiveness and letting go. Sadly, while the movie does it's best to weave these elements together, they never form a cohesive whole, and the movie feels oddly disjointed at times – a concern that isn't helped by the ambiguity and abruptness of its coda involving Kevin Bacon and his on-screen son.
'Jayne Mansfield's Car' largely lives and breathes on the strength of its many well-crafted performances – of which Duvall and Thornton unsurprisingly emerge as standouts – which help to make the many tonal transitions of the film feel less incoherent, but even then, the end result is still a little too inchoate for its own good.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Jayne Mansfield's Car' comes from Anchor Bay/Starz as a single 25GB Blu-ray in an eco-keepcase. The film has a handful of preview that can be skipped to go to the top menu, from which you can choose your settings or to view the single featurette on the disc.
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer is really quite nice. Most of the film's locations fluctuate between the Caldwell's poorly lit home and the lush greenery surrounding it, and, for the most part, the image manages to handle the needs of both locations quite well. There is a tremendous amount of fine detail in nearly every frame of the picture; facial features, skin details, and fabric textures are all on display. There's even a great amount of detail noticeable in the background on many shots, especially when Duvall and Hurt go out for a stroll in the woods.
Contrast plays a key role in the way the film looks, as well. Having to frequently shift from lighting source to lighting source doesn't seem to have any adverse effects on the image, though, as bright light tends to feel very even, while blacks manage to register precisely, without swallowing up any of the fine detail. Additionally, though it's not often called for with the film's rather narrow color palate, when brighter, more vibrant colors do show up (like on Frances O'Connor's wardrobe), they typically look stunning, and practically fly off the screen.
There's a great deal of depth in the image here, which helps make 'Jayne Mansfield's Car' look a whole lot nicer than you might expect. It's not a perfect image, but it is filled with fine detail and unique textural flourishes that help it stand just a little above the rest.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is a little like the film itself in the sense that it manages to have several distinct parts that all sound quite good, but never sound great when mashed together. Dialogue on its own is a little low, but fairly clear for the most part. However, when music or sound effects are added, it become increasingly difficult to hear what the actors are saying without fiddling with the volume. At lower levels the dialogue is almost unintelligible, and it only seems to become clearer when turned up. The downside to this, of course, is that turning the volume up seems to unbalance the mix to the degree that sound effects and music or score are too loud to be enjoyed comfortably. There is a happy medium in there somewhere, but you may have to search to find it.
Otherwise the sound generates a dynamic (if sometimes unbalanced) sound field. Rear channels are used to a surprising degree for a film that is primarily dedicated to character dialogue. Still, the surround manages to capture the sounds of a family cookout quite well, and delivers the sounds of a brief thunderstorm with a great deal of emphasis.
All in all, the audio has plenty to offer, but it just doesn't seem to want to offer everything at once. A nice sounding mix that just couldn't make its various parts work better together.
'Jayne Mansfield's Car' is a welcome return to directing for a multi-hyphenate who has had a great deal of success (both commercially and critically) in the past. It's been too long since Thornton has directed a film, and if this is just an opportunity for him to get his sea legs back, then it will all have been worth it. There're plenty of fantastic performances on display here, but, unfortunately, they don't all mesh well with one another, or with the fluctuating tone of the film. In the end, with a terrific image and just okay sound, this one could be worth a look.