'The Sound and the Fury': Venice Review

The Sound and the Fury
Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
Franco Tackles Faulkner, Take Two: Diminishing Returns

Actor-director James Franco's second Faulkner adaptation in two years again co-stars Tim Blake Nelson and Scott Haze

The Sound and the Fury, actor-director James Franco’s adaptation of one of the most notoriously complex and challenging works in the American literary canon, offers more proof of the seemingly indefatigable multihyphenate’s admiration for the work of the famously difficult-to-adapt William Faulkner. But Franco’s take on the decline of the Southern Compson clan isn’t quite as radical or impressive as his split-screen take on the novelist’s As I Lay Dying, which premiered in Cannes only last year. Since the latter film struggled to find an audience beyond VOD, Sound will clearly face an uphill battle at the box office. 

This is only the second cinematic adaptation of Faulkner’s masterpiece, the other being a melodramatic 1959 film directed by Martin Ritt that starred Yul Brynner and Joanne Woodward. Especially in its first chapter, Franco’s version at least tries to suggest something of the writer’s dense prose and challenging style in the film’s images and soundscape, though he’s less successful here than in his previous Faulkner adaptation.

After a short prologue, The Sound and the Fury opens with the first part, named after Benjy (Franco), at 33 years old the youngest scion of the once-proud Compson family, though Benjy is developmentally challenged and has been more "3 for 30 years" as one of the servants’ kids on the estate says. As are practically all the menfolk oin his family, Benjy is obsessed with his sole female sibling, Caddy (Ahna O’Reilly), who “smells like the trees.”

The most impressionistic of the film’s three parts (much of Faulkner’s fourth section has simply been tacked on to part three), the film goes back and forth between childhood memories in the late 19th century and the "present" of the late 1920s, when Benjy celebrates his 33rd birthday. To try and not entirely lose the viewer immediately, Franco and screenwriter Matt Rager (who also co-wrote As I Lay Dying) rely on a couple of Madeleine-like Proustian symbols that connect the short scenes set in the past and the present, such as a nail in a fence that Benjy keeps getting his clothes stuck on or a flower in his hand that reminds him of past occurrences.

In order to still give this drooling and grunting character, who doesn’t speak, something of an inner voice, there’s also a child-like voiceover, though there too, it is mainly an endless repetition of a couple core ideas or feelings rather than full-fledged prose arguments or memories, suggesting what might go on in an obsessive child’s mind. The idea of death is introduced here as well, though the kids initially seem mystified, asking themselves why grandma "won’t wake up." Thus a semi-disjointed picture emerges, much of it shot in an appropriately loose, handheld style, of Benjy’s need and desire not to be abandoned by his family and especially his sister. As Benjy, Franco cuts a hulking figure with great presence, though there’s a tendency to overact that make the character more of a simpleton than his inner life suggests he really is (in Faulkner, Benjy's something of the fool who knows best and someone who might be the most perceptive of the siblings despite appearances, and there's not all that much of that here).

A more rational and, appropriately, a bit more conventional part is the midsection, which looks at the life of the eldest son, Quentin (Jacob Loeb), who studied at Harvard. He’s obviously a bright mind but his stern father (Tim Blake Nelson), seen in glowering closeups, has put some strange ideas into his head, such as the idea that “Christ was worn down by ticking little wheels,” which leads to the young man’s obsession with watches, time and death. As with Benjy, Quentin is obsessed with his sister and more particularly with her honor, which is compromised when she becomes pregnant even though she's not married yet. Loeb is particularly good in this section, suggesting that his character has a weak and impressionable young mind as well as an almost unhealthy obsession with his sibling. A standoff with the possible father of Caddy’s child on a wooden bridge is especially impressive, getting right to the heart of the character’s problems and fixations. Indeed, this might be the section in which Faulkner’s complicated layering of information is best detangled through straightforward character development and action.  

The most problematic and, at over 40 minutes, the longest of the three parts is the last, which nominally focuses on Jason (Scott Haze), who’s bitter and frustrated and who takes out his anger out not on Caddy, who has been booted from the family mansion following her shameful delivery of an out-of-wedlock child, but on her young daughter, also called Quentin (Joey King), who still lives with the Compsons. The story is almost too straightforward, as Jason has become the de-facto head of the family since the death of the paterfamilias and uses his position almost in a dictatorial fashion, even cashing Caddy’s checks for her daughter and keeping most of the money for himself. But Jason’s character is flatly conceived as something of a Southern caricature and Haze is not strong enough an actor to overcome these flaws. Several cameos, including Danny McBride as a police officer and Seth Rogen as a telegram-office clerk, also distract, and the focus on Jason feels more half-hearted as the section wears on and bits and pieces of the novel's fourth section are added to the story — many not involving him at all — including a single scene in a black church that’s the entire film’s only real acknowledgement of religion.

There’s certainly an overall sense of a formerly rich family’s fortunes dwindling, both economically and emotionally, but the three sections don’t add up to something more than the sum of their parts and Caddy, lacking her own chapter, is neither the ghost that haunts all the men nor the force that reunites their thoughts, desires and their troubles, instead remaining frustratingly vague. 

Since Franco here reunites with a lot of the cast and crew of As I Lay Dying, there is a strong sense of continuity between the two, and both are shot in a green and earthen-tone palette with rather loose camerawork and feature a solid score from Tim O’Keefe that finds the right emotional notes without ever becoming bombastic.  

Production companies: Rabbit Bandini, Gentle Films
Cast: James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson, Scott Haze, Jacob Loeb, Ahna O’Reilly, Joey King, Seth Rogen, Danny McBride
Director: James Franco
Screenplay: Matt Rager, based on the novel by William Faulkner
Producers: Vince Jolivette, Lee Caplin, Caroline Aragon
Executive producers: Nemis Hason, Sezin Hason, Straw Weisman, Amy Beecroft, Jamie Hormel
Director of photography: Bruce Thierry Cheung
Production designer: Kristen Adams
Costume designer: Carolin Eselin
Editor: Ian Olds
Music: Tim O’Keefe
Sales: New Films International

No rating, 101 minutes