James Franco’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Child of God, isn’t quite as “gimmicky” as his feature debut, the incredibly ambitious adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The split-screen technique which marked that film – and alienated impatient viewers – has not been utilized here. However, this is not to imply that Child of God is his most accessible project by any means. In fact, I don’t think that I can recommend the film to anyone. Or maybe I can. If you know beforehand what you are getting into – and you still want to take the plunge – then do it. Whether it will have been worth it in the end will be entirely left up to the individual to decide.
Child of God opens in Sevier County, Tennessee in the sixties, as the violent, mentally unhinged Lester Ballard (a superb Scott Haze in an utterly fearless performance) attempts to break up an auction of his late father’s property with the aid of a loaded rifle, screaming profanities and making threats. However, once he is apprehended and his rifle is temporarily taken away, the authorities let him go. In fact, the local sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) sees Lester as a minor annoyance, who pops up every now and again, kicks up a fuss, and then goes a way for a while. The truth is that Lester is a troubled man. Ever since his father died, he has lived the life of a hermit, making a home in the woods and managing to survive in his own world, shut off from the rest of humanity. However vile his behavior, our narrator reminds us that he is “a child of god” much like ourselves – and herein lies the challenge of the film. Can we see Lester as merely a flawed human, just like the rest of us? Are we prepared to judge him, or should we show him mercy? We’re all made in the image of God, right?
As Lester begins to spiral down a dark and lonely path that ultimately leads to murder and necrophilia, it becomes nearly impossible to see the man as anything less than an animal. Does grace even exist for someone such as this? It’s a question that Franco does not hesitate to throw at the audience. He dares us to show compassion for this severely damaged soul. And by the end of it all, perhaps we have.
Child of God is not a perfect film by any means, but it remains an endlessly disturbing and fascinating character study, anchored by Scott Haze’s unforgettable performance. It is not a film for everyone, but for those who can handle this strong material, it is highly recommended.