When Billy Bob Thornton was growing up in Arkansas, he and his father shared an unusual pastime.
“He took me to see car wrecks,” Thornton says. “It sounds odd, I know. But it was just something we did.”
Now the memory of one famous wreck he viewed years ago colors the father-son drama “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” Thornton’s first writing-directing effort in more than a decade.
“This story has been in my head for a long time,” says Thornton, 58, as he and costar Robert Duvall, 82, sat on a hotel rooftop in Toronto discussing the ambitious character drama, which opens in select theaters today. And according to Duvall, Thornton was one of the few directors who could have pulled it off. “As soon as I read the script, it reminded me of something Tennessee Williams could have written,” says Duvall. “It’s a very nuanced look at what wars can do to people, especially the wars that go on inside our heads. That’s the tough stuff to film.”
Set in rural Alabama during the late Sixties, the ensemble tale, starring Thornton, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick and Duvall as their crusty, war-loving father, is a meditation both on family dysfunction and on America’s shifting attitudes toward the heroism of war during the Vietnam era. The script, cowritten by Thornton and Tom Epperson, also teems with black humor, deeply flawed characters and long-held resentments that have shaped their lives and beliefs about war.
“I always wanted to make a movie about dysfunction in a family. But I was also attracted to this idea of how each generation views war differently and how we glorify and romanticize tragedy in our culture,” says Thornton. “I’m not trying to be political here, but when the troops came home from World War II, that generation looked at them like rock stars. When the soldiers returned from Vietnam, they were looked at like street people. Attitudes change. That’s true even today, and that change never stops.”
Thornton wrote the film’s central character, World War I vet Jim Caldwell, specifically for friend Duvall.
“I’ve known Bobby for a long time. Playing his son just felt right to me,” says Thornton.
Duvall, too, was eager to bring Thornton’s dour hero to life.
“Jim was challenging because he couldn’t be pigeonholed,” says Duvall. “There are so many contradictions and colors to him. I really wanted to see what I could do with him.”
Gruff and emotionally remote, Caldwell is father to four children he can barely tolerate. Oddball son Skip (Thornton) and hippie Carroll (Bacon) both fought in World War II but returned home with mixed feelings about their experiences. War-lover Jimbo (Patrick) is left emotionally crippled after failing to see active duty. Finally, daughter Donna — a knockout Southern belle played by Katherine LaNasa — bears war wounds of a different kind from her troubled marriage to a good-ole-boy car salesman.
To escape his embarrassing offspring, Caldwell takes road trips to view car wrecks on highways or in penny-ante carnivals. Yet new distractions arise when Jim learns of the death of his ex-wife, who left years ago to start a new life with another man (John Hurt).
To everyone’s surprise, Jim’s ex is transported back to town for burial by her home-wrecking British husband and his two children (Frances O’Connor, Ray Stevenson). The warring families hit if off when they finally meet, and Donna and Skip become romantically entangled with the stranger’s children.
Yet more astonishing still is the friendship that develops between Jim and the hated “other man,” which is cemented during a trip to see Mansfield’s death car. The men discover they are more alike than different, particularly in terms of their disappointment in their children.
“John and I never worked together before, but you could feel our emotions even in the silence we shared. It worked because Billy let us do our thing,” says Duvall.
Thornton’s tale also benefited from his own experiences with an uncommunicative father.
“My father was an intense guy. I found it very hard to speak to him. But that’s another reason why I called this movie ‘Jayne Mansfield’s Car,’” says Thornton.
The bombshell actress died in a crash in 1967 en route to New Orleans. Since then, Mansfield’s death car has become a dark but celebrated bit of pop culture in North America. Yet in it Thornton found the perfect metaphor for this story and for a culture that glorifies violence.
“The truth is everybody has had tragedy in their lives,” says Thornton. “We’re all the same. “We’re all smashed-up works in progress.”