With As I Lay Dying, which premiered earlier this year in Cannes, James Franco tackled the notoriously challenging prose of William Faulkner and received some of the strongest endorsements yet for one of his idiosyncratic filmmaking endeavors. He makes a logical progression in Child of God, a pitch-dark hillbilly fever dream of a novel published in 1973 by arguably the most Faulknerian of contemporary American writers, Cormac McCarthy.
Far more than its immediate predecessor in the Franco canon – which is shaping up into its own unclassifiable subgenre – this latest project is destined to divide reactions from whatever adventurous sliver of an audience it can muster. Many will categorically dismiss its crude aesthetic and uneven tone, but others will surely be willing to find art in its seeming artlessness.
Raw and unpolished in ways that often make it seem almost like some kind of anti-cinema film school experiment, Child of God is dominated by Scott Haze’s fearless performance, a theatricalized fusillade of full-throttle feral craziness loaded with blood, snot, spit, shit and bile. While nothing else comes close to that central force, there’s a weird purity to the storytelling even at its untidiest, which enables Franco to remain true to the spirit of McCarthy’s vernacular lyricism.
Haze plays Lester Ballard, a repellent outcast who stalks the hill country of East Tennessee but, as the early voiceover narration intones, is “a child of God much like yourself perhaps.” Words lifted directly from the book are heard or appear as onscreen text in the establishing section, mirroring McCarthy’s use of multiple unidentified narrators to piece together an oral history of Lester’s sorry life. The faithful adaptation by Franco and Vince Jolivette also maintains the novel’s three-part structure.
Set in what looks to be the 1950s, the story opens with the auction of the family home and land Lester has lost, during which he cocks his rifle in a bid to drive the crowd away before being clobbered over the head with an ax handle. That initial violence marks the beginning of a steady process of dehumanization as societal rejection pushes him deeper into a sordid private world of madness and malediction.
He moves into an abandoned cabin in the woods, spends a brief spell in jail after being falsely accused of rape, and wins three large furry animal toys in a carnival shooting game that become his surrogate family. The pathos of his solitude veers into the macabre when Lester finds a couple of young lovers asphyxiated in their car on a lonely stretch of road. He hauls the girl’s body home, developing an instant taste for necrophilia. Then, in grotesquely comic scenes, he goes shopping in town for a new outfit for her to wear on their first “date.”
When the cabin burns down and his cadaverous lady friend is lost with it, Lester moves into rock caves high in the hills. This provides a refuge where he continues indulging in unsavory pleasures as the Sevier County sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) and his deputy (Jim Parrack) close in.
The major WTF moment for many will be when Lester sneaks up, dressed in female garments and a wig scalped from one of his victims and smeared with lipstick, intending to shoot the detested purchaser of his former home (Brian Lally). This might seem like a Franco-esque addition that’s somewhat outré even for such a lurid Southern Gothic, but in fact it comes directly from McCarthy. While several key incidents from the novel are omitted, including the doleful conclusion, Franco and Jolivette introduce only one significant invention, involving the unhappy demise of the toy animals.
The screenwriters’ chosen ending point is a smart one. In a striking visual, it suggests that Lester, physically diminished yet unbroken, has become a resilient creature of the earth, inhabiting a mythic dimension. The scene also provides cinematographer Christina Voros with a stunning natural canvas flooded with light, a welcome contrast to the murky textures of the woodland scenes or the flat colors of the town, frequently shot with messy handheld camera.
Dramatically, Child of God is hit or miss; some scenes are ferociously captivating while others are given clumsy handling, almost to the point of indifference. The same goes for the performances. While pros like Nelson and Parrack (True Blood) get by, many of the smaller roles and extras are distractingly bad, which is unexpected in a work directed by an accomplished actor. A brief appearance by Franco toward the end as the head of a pack of vigilante hunters is a pointless intrusion that takes us out of the story.
But as a character study of a figure said to be partly inspired by Wisconsin murderer and body snatcher Ed Gein (also an influence on the killers in Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the film succeeds on its own terms. That is in large part down to Haze’s unstinting commitment to the role. Looking wild-eyed or shifty, Lester twists his toothy mouth into sick grimaces or foams with vicious imprecations, barely audible grumblings, or the garbled stream-of-consciousness ravings of a diseased mind. (The film screened in Venice with English as well as Italian subtitles, no doubt due to the thickly accented dialogue.)
Shuffling around his wilderness domain with his rifle tucked under his arm, hunched over in pain, scratching and twitching, Lester is a memorably bizarre figure. He’s a monster but also a sad example of America’s dispossessed rural poor, who fittingly invites both disgust and sympathy.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition; also in Toronto, New York festivals)
Cast: Scott Haze, Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Parrack, Nina Ljeti, Brian Lally, Steve Hunter, Elena McGhee, Fallon Goodson, James Franco
Production companies: Rabbit Bandini Productions, in association with Made In Film Land
Director: James Franco
Screenwriters: James Franco, Vince Jolivette based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Producers: Caroline Aragon, Vince Jolivette, Miles Levy
Director of photography: Christina Voros
Production designer: Kristen Adams
Music: Aaron Embry
Editor: Curtis Clayton
Costume designer: Malgosia Turzanska
No rating, 104 minutes.