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by Garon Cockrell
DVD Review: Jayne Mansfield’s Car
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By Garon Cockrell
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Dec. 11, 2013 12:01 a.m.

Jayne Mansfield’s Car is an interesting and engaging family drama set in the south in 1969, when a death brings two very different, though perhaps equally dysfunctional, families together. It boasts a fairly incredible ensemble cast including Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick, Ray Stevenson, Frances O’Connor, Ron White and Billy Bob Thornton, who also co-wrote and directed the film.
The film opens with a small anti-war demonstration in the town of Morrison, Alabama, while the two local cops look on. Meanwhile, the older folk are in a barber shop, discussing politics. Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall) says, “You ought to have to be from here to run for office, the way I see it.” Another guy tells him, “Well, they’ve been here some forty-odd years, though, Jim.” Jim is then upset to learn that one of his sons, Carroll (Kevin Bacon) was the leader of the anti-war demonstration. He seems to be leaning pretty far to the right, so the sudden shot of Jim seated by a stream is completely welcome, for it makes us feel for him. It makes him more human.
This family has money. They live in a mansion. Skip (Billy Bob Thornton), one of the other sons, has a small collection of sports cars. But they are far from being trouble-free. Skip, though fifty years old, still lives at home. Jimbo (Robert Patrick), though married and with a son, also still lives at home. Jim lives partially in the past, harboring an anger, and also a morbid passion for car accidents. The family dynamic is almost immediately apparent during an early dinner scene at the house. Jim is interestingly quiet for the beginning of this scene, and he when he does speak, it’s to say basically what he said in the barber shop, which now simply comes off as rather sad instead of strong and indignant like the first time.
A phone call from England interrupts their dinner. Jim’s ex-wife – the mother to all of his children – has died and is going to be buried in Alabama. A death in the family is an easy way to make an audience feel for a group of people, but it’s really when Jim says, “She deserved to be with her people, don’t matter what she’d done to us” that you become involved and drawn in.
Sadly, the backstory of Naomi (Jim’s ex-wife) is provided by some clunky exposition by two supporting characters in a car. But that is one of only a very few weak moments in this film. Most of the scenes are strong, and work to develop the characters in this character-driven film. There is an early scene when Jim hears of a car accident over the radio and goes to see it. There is a nice moment when the two cops see him coming and exchange a few quick words before he arrives – “that son of a bitch shows up at every wreck there is,” “rich folks ain’t never got anything to do.” And as Jim gets closer, they greet him in a friendly manner. It’s a wonderful moment, showing perhaps that Jim doesn’t get the respect he thinks he does, and from the very people he’d expect it most. (It’s also interesting the order in which we’re given information. We’re allowed to develop our own opinion about Jim and his curiosity about accidents before learning that he actually was a medic in the first World War, so could actually provide some help in these situations.)
John Hurt plays Kingsley Bedford, Naomi’s second husband, who arrives for the funeral with his two grown children, Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and Camilla (Frances O’Connor). There is tension at first between the two families, who had never met before. But they then begin to get to know each other. Billy Bob Thornton is funny when he tells Camilla: “I like the way everything you say sounds. I wish I could speak English.” Actually, much of the film’s humor comes from their interactions. At one point he asks her straight out, “I was just wondering, sometime could we just slip off and you get naked and talk English and recite something, I don’t know, and just let me beat off to you.”
The film is really about these characters and their relationships. Often it’s the most quiet, most personal moments that are the best. For example, the scene where Jim asks Kingsley how he met Naomi is absolutely perfect and touching. The scene where Skip tells Camilla about the war is another excellent, quiet, intensely personal scene.
By the way, the film’s title comes from the car that Jayne Mansfield died in, a car that was shipped around to different towns where people could buy tickets to look at it.
Special Feature
The DVD contains one special feature, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car: Behind The Scenes,” which features interviews with Billy Bob Thornton, Robert Patrick, Ray Stevenson and Kevin Bacon. Billy Bob Thornton says the film is about how different generations view war, and it’s about “the romanticism of tragedy.” Robert Patrick talks about how they moved quickly on this film, doing between one and three takes. There is also some footage taken on the set.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car was released on DVD and Blu-ray on December 10, 2013 through Anchor Bay.

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