Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: James Franco
Screenplay: James Franco, Vince Jolivette. Novel by Cormac McCarthy.
Runtime: 104 minutes
Cast: Scott Haze, Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Parrack, Brian Lally.
Trailer: “Let's go.” (warning: I wouldn't. This is about the wierdest, most misleading marketing you could possibly imagine for this film)
Plot: This clumsy adaptation of Cormack McCarthy’s novel follows Lester Ballard, as he is evicted from his East Tennessee farms and begins to roam the surrounding countryside and terrorise the local community. Picked up by the Sheriff and released, Lester finds it impossible to live a life unspoiled by trouble or his own base desires; stealing chickens, spying on lovers, and trying to kill the man who bought his farm.
Review: Directed by James Franco. I tried so hard not to let those four words influence my opinion. But Franco is a lot like Lester Ballard – short of attention span, always getting himself into trouble, frequently slumming it, and a figure that the locals just shake their head at when they learn of his latest act of artsy terrorism. Because let’s face it, Franco has developed a reputation of being a dilettante, specifically ‘a person who takes up an art, activity, or subject merely for amusement, especially in a desultory or superficial way.’ Following his early success as an actor, Franco has attempted to reinvent himself as the artist as Artist, seeking to transcend the humble roots of acting and with the confidence that his genius will disclose itself no matter what the form.
It is an unfortunate side-effect of fame, and lack of a critical eye. This has meant we have been subjected to:
1. His early television work, such as Freaks and Geeks or the biopic James Dean;
2. Supporting actor in several superhero blockbusters;
3. Some significant films such as Milk or 127 Hours (I’m being generous), several disposable cash grabs;
4. Teaching classes in feature filmmaking and production;
5. Several short stories;
6. Museum exhibitions based on his experience acting in General Hospital;
7. Several short films that he has directed and occasionally starred in;
8. A multimedia project entitled Three’s Company The Drama consisting of video and art;
9. Hosting the Academy Awards (the infamous ‘worst telecast in [Academy Awards] history’);
10. Attack art and defaced photos answering his critics with snappy sarcasm;
11. Directing and narrating a dance theatre piece called Collages;
12. Documentaries about significant figures, including the poet Hart Crane;
13. As frontman for a band Daddy’s, releasing their first single in 2012;
14. As a noted lover and author of poetry;
15. etc, etc, etc.
Franco is also completing a PhD at Yale University. I’ve only seen about half of these endeavours, but the reviews of the others have generally ranged from the mixed to the damning. This is the resume of a man spread thin; indicating that Franco doesn’t seem to believe that he need spend any time gaining experience in these genres in order to produce good material. Artists frequently reinvent themselves in other roles or mediums; and if the material they produce is any good, and they earnestly apply themselves to it, they garner praise and a new reputation. Franco attempts something unique, reinventing himself in every direction at once like a high school student desperately trying to find what they are good at (that would explain Franco’s creepy tendency of trying to sleep with teenagers; perhaps he still is one at heart). The critical difference being that Franco’s fame inflicts all of these attempts on the public; and they have become justifiably wary of anything that has his name attached to it. They should be similarly wary of Child of God; a film based on the most outstanding material that only exacerbates Franco’s poor directorial choices.
Based on the Cormac McCarthy book – which I reviewed here in preparation, and highly recommend – Franco’s Child of God is the animation of a sort of Southern myth or folk tale. It is the story of Lester Ballard (Scott Haze), an outcast at the end of a long line of family failures, who is evicted from his farm and must find a place to live on the fringes. The film follows the book faithfully for the most part, opening on the auction of Lester’s farm and his last attempt to stop the sale, garnering a serious head injury for his trouble. Lester flails about in the wild, starving, with only his rifle and his skill at shooting to keep him fed. One scene that Franco does handle well is when Lester creeps in from the fringes at a carnival, winning a series of prizes at a shooting booth and briefly lauding his own, fleeting, success. His descent into crime is quick to follow; at first stealing chickens from the new owner of his former property, then licentiously assaulting a drunken local, and finally engaging in necrophilia and murder. Arrested at the midpoint of this fall and released, Tim Blake Nelson’s Sheriff asks Lester ‘What’s your plans now? What sort of meanness have you got laid out for next?’
Franco seems to attracted by the sensationalism and the squalor of the original material, but he does little to go beyond a superficial portrayal of Lester’s decline. Viewers of the film who haven’t read the book are likely to be left baffled as to why we are following this obviously ill man; unfortunately, the conversational and folk-loric style that gives the book its power and bleak humour is reduced to a simple catalogue of spit and semen. You’ll see a man standing in his own piss, you’ll see him shitting on screen, you’ll see him fuck a corpse. You’ll wonder why; Franco performs the dubious trick of being a reverse Mary Harron (of the brilliant adaptation of American Psycho), turning McCarthy into Bret Easton Ellis and delivering a series of shallow shocks over a sustained meditation.
How does he do this? By making nothing but obvious choices in the adaptation. The film follows the book’s three part structure to the letter (literally, in the form of Roman numerals), to the point of displaying numbered interstitials and literal text on screen quoting the novel. The local voices that retell Lester’s antics – critical to the biting critique of the novel – are delivered in bland, periodic narrations by the same voice, obliterating their actual point. Franco chooses a shaky, almost hand-held cinematography that focuses on the dirty face of Lester and his tangled beard, squandering the beautiful landscape and reserving the wide shots the film was crying out for until the baffling ending (which does not follow the book, because obviously Franco thought he understood the material better than McCarthy). There was an opportunity for Franco to show Lester as a tiny man in an overwhelming landscape (and Lester’s battle with the elements is a key feature), a landscape which swallows up all human perversion and outlives it. Surprisingly for a man who values poetry, Franco the auteur finds none within filmic elements that are almost bursting with them. Many other examples of his directorial clumsiness proliferate – odd overhead shots, a set design that leaves the audience utterly confused about which period the film is set, a criminally wasted opportunity in portraying the bravura scene of the novel (Lester coming across a car accident) in such a perfunctory manner that all of the shock and hilarity of the scene just drains away. The effect is to make Child of God appear like an undergraduate film student’s work, who seemingly has no interest in improving. Which effectively is what Franco is (his teaching credits aside), but with a substantial distribution deal.
The real tragedy is not just the waste of great material, but also the waste of an outstanding performance by Scott Haze. His portrayal of Lester Ballard is right on the money, and his ability to capture Lester’s tics and non-verbal confusions is praiseworthy, even if the direction frequently squanders them by not paying attention or letting significant moments land (there is a lot of fading to black). The rest of the performances are adequate, although Tim Blake Nelson’s Sheriff seems more like a tired businessman coming home to discipline his children. Some performances, such as Elena McGhee as ‘Lady in White,’ would have benefited from being toned down to establish their sincerity. One particular corpse has a hard time playing dead, and Franco doesn’t seem to be interested in taking the time to get it right.
Overall, most will be put off this film but won’t know why – likely pinning it on the repulsive subject matter, and the bored spaces in-between. But it wasn’t meant to be this way, and McCarthy’s book is transcendent. It is hard enough to watch the most talented of directors adapt a favourite book, but watching Franco do it is probably the theme of a booklover’s sixth or eighth circle of hell; heresy or fraud, take your pick.
Rating: One and a half giant stuffed animals.