NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Virginia Film Festival. Child of God opens at the Angelika Pop-Up on August 1st.
Whatever one thinks of James Franco as an actor, he’s deserving of some serious props behind the camera, at least for not being a pansy in the projects he decides to take on. In fact he seems to thrive on the challenge of directing films many would steer clear of, or adapting novels deemed unfilmmable. We’ve seen this many times before with his Hart Crane biopic; his Sundance-debuting Interior Leather Bar; and this summer’s William Faulkner adaptation As I Lay Dying. How successful Franco was in these ventures is a matter of debate, and that’s likely to be the case with Child of God, based on the novel by celebrated author Cormac McCarthy.
Those who have dared read McCarthy’s pitch black novel know this isn’t any cakewalk, as the story treads heavily in themes of sexual deviancy and societal isolation. The 1960s Tennessee-set tale centers on Lester Ballard (Scott Haze), a local miscreant whose feral demeanor borders on the neanderthal. On his own since his parents died, he sees the family land sold right out from under him, despising the powers that allowed it to happen. Taking to the wilderness and living in an old shack, Lester further withdraws from society unless something is immediately necessary. He steals food when need be, but chooses to live off the land whenever possible. And like the other wild animals he isn’t prone to taking a dump in the woods and cleaning himself with tree branches, in one especially disgusting moment.
The local sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) knows Lester is trouble but lets him be, in some small way showing the only measure of concern for the man. Lester continues to deteriorate, though, especially after a woman falsely accuses him of rape. When Lester finds a dead couple by the side of the road, he has sex with the woman’s corpse then takes her to his home to live out some sort of weird marital existence driven by necrophilia. When her body burns in a fire, Lester loses what little bits of sanity remained and goes on a killing spree murdering young women in an effort to replace the one he lost.
The shock of that first act of necrophilia never really wears off, and only compounds as Lester becomes more unhinged and his acts more brazen. The problem is that there isn’t much else to Lester that’s very interesting, even as touches of dark humor attempt to turn him into a disturbed antihero. Child of God works on the page solely due to McCarthy’s distinctive prose, but without it the story is pretty drab. Franco does a solid job deciding which elements of the book are needed on the screen, but he doesn’t do anything in particular to liven them up. Early on he lifts significant portions of the text and presents them as narration, which comes off as ponderous. The locale doesn’t inspire much visually, either, and bland direction doesn’t really help.
And yet the visceral, powerful performance by Haze overshadows much of the film’s major issues. Snarling like a cornered animal and speaking in gutteral, broken English that probably should have been subtitled, Haze sinks into a role that calls him to do some pretty heinous stuff, and very nearly makes Lester someone we can sympathize.
Child of God is another ambitious effort by Franco, but there’s a reason why others have had so much difficulty bringing it to the screen. While it’s not all his fault the film doesn’t work, one has to count Child of God as another interesting failure on his resume.