Major spoilers for 1922.
Netflix’s 1922 isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a dark, grim adaptation of Stephen King’s novella, brutally exploring how guilt tears apart a greedy rancher’s life – leading to deaths of his loved ones and an awful lot of rats. Today let’s explore what that ending really means.
We’ve already had The Dark Tower, IT and Gerald’s Game, now the year of Stephen King comes to close with 1922 on Netflix (who also released Mike Flanagan’s latter thriller). The film follows Wilfred James (played with brooding anger by Thomas Jane), who plots to kill him scheming wife Arlette (House of Cards‘ Molly Parker) with his son, Hank (newcomer Dylan Schmid) in an attempt to keep control of his farm. However, things don’t go to plan; by the end he’s lost literally everything and is forced to face the fundamental errors in his judgment.
Related: Gerald’s Game Ending Explained
Zak Hilditch’s film is a slow-burner, gradually charting Wilfred’s mental descent, and ends in a fittingly chilling manner. Let’s look at what went down and what the swarms of rats haunting him really represent.
What Happened At The End of 1922?
Reeling from his part in killing his mother, Hank runs away, robbing a bank and springing his now-pregnant girlfriend Shannon from her Catholic school prison. The pair become known as “The Sweetheart Bandits”, a proto Bonnie and Clyde duo who travel around the Middle (how the James’ refer to Middle America) pulling heists. Their crime spree is brought to a premature end by vigilante justice; Shannon is shot and, after she dies of her wounds, Hank puts a gun in his mouth.
As he tells it, Wilfred discovers this not through the papers but from the ghost of Arlette; she, flanked by rats, corners him in the house’s basement and she “whispered secrets to me only a dead woman could know“. We’ll get to the ramifications of that shortly, but in terms of plot the sequence starts Wilfred’s final spiral. The farm falls into disrepair, with a massive hole in the roof letting snow pour in and a cow taking up residence in the living room. While the police wrongfully solve the mystery of Arlette’s disappearance, that doesn’t draw a line under it either; Wilfred ends up selling the farm for a much lower price than Arlette ever wanted (the reason he killed her) and leaves for work in the city he once despised, only to keep having to move on after feeling hunted by rats.
At the end, as he writes his story (the film’s framing device), rats pour in through the walls and surround him. He begins to realize that everything bad that has happened – to him and those around him (family aside, as a result of his actions things weren’t much better for Harlan Cotterie, Shannon’s father, whose loses his daughter, wife and farm also) – is a result of his single, selfish, short-sighted decision. It’s a very dark version of the “grass is always greener” adage, telling a story where things can only possibly get worse from the start.
Did Wilfred Kill Himself?
As 1922 wears on, Wilfred is haunted by the decaying specter of his wife (and later his son) – she lurks outside his house, torments him with visions of Hank’s failed life of crime and later appears at his funeral – all the while flanked by increasingly large hordes of rats. There’s a constant question of if these are actual ghosts or just in Wilfred’s mind. Obviously the latter makes more rational sense, but it doesn’t explain how she tells him in detail of The Sweetheart Bandits. That’s possibly a case of unreliable narrator (throughout we get alternate realities presented formed from Wilfred’s mind), but there’s nothing to resolutely disprove it.
This is all important to the ending because it shapes how Wilfred dies. That his life ends isn’t really up to debate, but whether he kills himself like his son with an unheard gunshot or is “taken” by the spirits of those who he wronged is the film’s lasting question. And which it is really matters; it changes the autonomy of who is claiming him and his ultimate fate. It’s stated in the film that murderers don’t believe in God because if there’s a heaven, there must also be a hell: if he kills himself, he’s owning up to his mistakes and entering blackness; but if the spirits do exist and Arlette and Hank take him, there is an afterlife and he’s doomed to burn forever for his sins. The dangling answer is, then, a musing on belief and the structures we create around it, especially in regards to repentance and death.
Pragmatically, though, who actually killed Wilfred doesn’t change the overall message. His fate was sealed when he first moved to kill Arlette; he was on a track to death from that moment, everything was inevitable. As he says, “in the end, we all get caught“; even though he was never found legally guilty, the fact of what he did destroys him anyway. That’s the tragedy of 1922, of this shifting American time deceiving and destroying.
But we can’t end without addressing the elephant-scaring creature in the room: the rats.
What Do The Rats Mean?
Rats are a very strong, symbolic force in movies. After all, in our culture, they’re regarded as dirty, unclean vermin (dating all the way back to the plague) typically associated with decay and death. The growing numbers haunting Wilfred are, plainly, an application of that – they highlight the decay of Arlette’s body without having to show it explicitly (something that builds the shock reveal of Hank’s eaten face) and immediately convey how much dirt is on our lead’s hands.
But their use in 1922 is more than that. They are a physical representation of his growing guilt. We start with one rat inside the mouth of the wife he murdered, something he views as a violation, then another gnawing on the livestock he likewise views so flippantly he’ll kill as part of the coverup; they are no different to him but seeing it play out repulses him. They prey on what he’s done, something made tangible when he’s bitten and has his hand amputated, a constant reminder of misdeeds. But guilt remains and so the pack grows, the struggle to address what he’s done mounting; when doing busywork to distract the mind, they still emerge, nibbling at his conscience even when he’s far away from the scene of the crime.
The film doesn’t go as far as the book (he imagines the rats eating him as his dies, revealed in an epilogue to be self-inflicted wounds), but the point stands; they aren’t just disgusting creatures, but disgusting creatures that reflect on him to his ultimate demise. That’s why the literal nature of the ghosts doesn’t matter – the rats make the story more metaphorical as is and are the real thing haunting Wilfred.
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