Billy Bob Thornton leads an all-star cast in Jayne Mansfield's Car, premiering at the Berlin film festival Monday, about the US and British sides of a family of veterans who reunite during the Vietnam War.
The 1960s drama tinged with black comedy, which was warmly received at a press preview, tells the story of an Alabama patriarch (Robert Duvall) who served in World War I and raised three sons who would also become soldiers.Duvall's character Jim lives in a rambling mansion with two of his sons, played by Thornton and Robert Patrick, while a third (Kevin Bacon) lives in town in a hippie den, taking drugs and protesting against the Vietnam War.
All three sons served in World War II yet failed to win the respect of their embittered father, whose free-spirit wife left him and moved to London, where she met an Englishman (John Hurt) she would eventually marry.
Before his ex-wife dies, she says she wants to be buried in Alabama and so when the time comes, Hurt's character Kingsley, himself a World War I veteran, and his son and daughter fly with her body across the Atlantic.
Although Jim is reluctant to meet Kingsley and predicts a culture clash, which produced some of the biggest laughs at the screening, they eventually bond over their battlefield memories from France, helped along when one of Jim's grandchildren slips LSD into his tea.
But both older men are emotionally distant fathers and Jim is particularly brutal with his sons, berating them for failing him and forcing them to accompany him on grisly visits to the sites of fresh car accidents.
On one such outing he takes Kingsley and a grandson to see the supposed wreck in which the Hollywood sex symbol Jayne Mansfield was killed in 1967.
Thornton said his own father was a tight-lipped brute whose abuse was one of the major drivers of the struggles seen in the film, which he also directed and co-wrote.
"My father was a very violent Irishman. There was abuse both verbally and physically in our household. He was a Korean war veteran, in the navy, he was a very intense guy who I don't think I had a conversation with," he told reporters.
"He would take my brother and I to car wrecks and he would stand there and smoke Lucky Strikes and stare. That was how he connected with us."
Thornton, who won a screenwriting Oscar for his first outing as a director, "Sling Blade" (1996), said his frustration with Hollywood movies had led him to pursue his own project, which he produced largely with Russian financing.
"I was complaining a lot about the state of movies in America, that most of the movies that are easy to get financed involve models in gladiator uniforms and wacky comedies with kids who get caught with sheep in hotel rooms and things like that," he said.
"Here's an American story and a British story that nobody would finance in America, so a Russian financed it."
Hurt, a screen veteran from films as diverse as "The Elephant Man" and the Harry Potter movies who accepted Britain's BAFTA for outstanding contribution to cinema on Sunday, had high praise for Thornton as a filmmaker.
"He has an intrinsic understanding of the language of cinema," he said.
At the press conference, Thornton presented Hurt with the walking cane he uses in the film as a gift in honour of his BAFTA.
Jayne Mansfield's Car is one of 18 films vying for the festival's Golden Bear top prize, to be awarded Saturday at a gala ceremony by the jury president, British director Mike Leigh.