Directed by: James Franco.
Written by: James Franco & Vince Jolivette based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.
Starring: Scott Haze (Lester Ballard), Tim Blake Nelson (Sheriff Fate), James Franco (Jerry), Jim Parrack (Deputy Cotton).
With his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, James Franco proves two things – first, that he has impeccable taste in source material, and second, he has no idea how to adapt that material. McCarthy is arguably the greatest living American writer, and his novels are sparse, spare, raw and deceptively simple. In order to effective adapt McCarthy; a director needs to find a way to do cinematically what McCarthy does with his prose. The Coen’s were able to do this with No Country for Old Men (although, to be fair, McCarthy’s novel met them half way) and John Hillcoat did a very good job with The Road. But Franco doesn’t have the directorial chops to pull it off in Child of God – sometimes even resorting to putting whole swathes of McCarthy’s novel on screen because he cannot come up with a better way to replicate it on screen. Child of God is perhaps the simplest of McCarthy’s novels – the story of a man ostracized from society, who gradually goes insane, becomes a necrophiliac, murderer and a cave dweller. The novel is simple in terms of plot, so you might think it would be simple to adapt - but I don't think that's the case. While it would certainly be easier to write a screenplay for Child of God rather than other McCarthy novels like Suttree or Blood Meridian, you can make the case that it probably should not be adapted at all. The novel is so interior that any movie would have trouble making that cinematic. Franco's film fails miserably at that.
The movie is about Lester Ballard (Scott Haze), who at the beginning storms his family’s old land with a rifle to try and get them from stop auctioning it off. He fails, of course, and after another short stint in the county jail, he ends up in his rundown shack in the middle of nowhere. He spends his days wandering around the forest with his rifle, killing animals. When he does run into people, he’s so socially awkward that things end up spiraling out of control almost immediately. He cannot relate to any of the people he meets, yet he longs for some sort of connection. Eventually, he’ll find a dead body of a woman, and she becomes his “companion”. And then, when he loses her, he’ll do what he must to replace her.
From the beginning, Franco tries very hard to make everything seem dirty, grimy and “realistic”. He undermines himself at the start with those passages from the novel appearing on screen, and his attempt to replicate the novel’s structure of multiple narrators. Thankfully, he abandons this fairly early on, but the movie never settles down and finds it rhythm. For one thing, every time a recognizable actor appears on screen – like Tim Blake Nelson, overacting his way through his role as a Sheriff, or late in the movie, Franco himself, they stand out from the rest of the cast like they don’t belong there.
The bigger problem though is Haze’s performance as Lester. I give Haze credit for a willingness to immerse himself in the role, and go for broke. But his performance is so over the top and mannered, that he never seems like a human being – even one as damaged as Lester is. He speaks with some strange combination of speech impediment and accent that makes ninety-percent of his dialogue unintelligible. Haze would have been better served going for a more natural performance.
There are other problems with the movie as well. The necrophliac scenes, which should be disturbing in the extreme, are so clumsily handled that that verge on being unintentionally funny. As the final sequence, which is largely wordless, requires a director with more visual command than Franco currently has to pull off.
Still, although I think Child of God is a failure on pretty much every conceivable level, strangely, I still think it shows some promise for Franco as a director. What he needs to do is find a simpler story, and tell it in a more straight forward manor. There are isolated moments that work in the film. Child of God may be a horrible movie, but at some point, I have a feeling Franco is going to make a good movie.
Note: This review is based upon a screening at TIFF 2013. As far as I am aware, the film has not changed since then, so the version being released in limited markets today in America is the same as the one I saw.