James and His Giant Reach
By Adam Nayman
Child of God
Dir. James Franco, U.S., No distributor
To the list of hardy souls who have tried bringing Cormac McCarthy to the screen we may now add James Franco. Excepting city mice Joel and Ethan Coen—whose No Country for Old Men is at least as much an act of auteurism as adaptation—it’s a rugged bunch: between them, Billy Bob Thornton (All the Pretty Horses), Tommy Lee Jones (The Sunset Limited) and John Hillcoat (The Road) could probably roll any other cohort of filmmakers for their lunch money.
Franco, who is now one of our foremost public intellectuals—able to hold forth on topics as varied as Faulkner and Leviathan (the documentary, not the Hobbes)—surely sees himself as a comparably muscular filmmaker: at this point, the list of things this celebrity dilettante and occasionally excellent actor sees himself as must be longer than the one of things he doesn’t. Let it be said that it does take some cojones to make a movie out of what might be McCarthy’s most stylistically abstruse (and yet thematically obvious) novel: published in 1973, before its author was a Harold Bloom-ratified national treasure, Child of God is so variegated in its narration that the prose sometimes appears to be flying apart before the reader’s eyes. The schizophrenic (and rarely signaled) switching between omniscient and first-person description is both a literary flourish and perhaps a sincere attempt to present the craziness of his main character, Lester Ballard, a man who is at once trapped inside his own head and prone to almost out-of-body bursts of extreme violence and depravity. The book’s title is a none-to-subtle reminder that this backwoods outcast, who over the course of the story will go from a public nuisance to a serial killer of young women, is as much a human being as you or I, dear reader.
This trick of harsh implication has been a favorite of writers from Dostoevsky to Ellis (and filmmakers from Haneke to Hitchcock) and it should be said that McCarthy doesn’t have as much of a talent for it as he does for other things. His greatest novels, including The Road and especially Blood Meridian, work because the characters we spend the most time with are (relative) innocents enacting their pilgrim’s progress against a blasted landscape. Evil is an external force, whether embodied in Blood Meridian in the hulking frame of the Judge—Milton’s Satan and Melville’s White Whale in one horrifying package—or via the mostly faceless assailants of The Road. Those books avoid or else steamroll clichés (Old West and post-apocalypse respectively), but Child of God, with its overwrought yet simplistic message—that we’re all basically gibbering monsters under the skin—and early 60s setting, feels at best like a pastiche of another all-American genre: the misunderstood-teen melodrama, whose heroes rebel without cause against whatever society’s got.
The iconoclastic aspects of Lester Ballard’s character may be what attracted Franco, who’s played a few of those characters himself over the years (recall his James Dean impersonation in both a well-received 2001 television movie and, less directly, the 2002 thriller City by the Sea). Instead of suiting up, though, he cast Scott Haze, who deserves credit for throwing himself body-and-soul into the role: stooped, slavering, and stupid behind impressively hollowed-out eyes, he projects a vivid cartoon-redneck vibe. Except that one gets the feeling that both actor and director were going for something a little more significant than a comic riff of mountain-man stereotypes, and it’s in this straining for effect that Child of God throws its back out.
Take the film’s extended middle section, which builds upon Act One’s establishment of Lester as the ultimate outsider in Sevier County, Tennessee, and starts to flesh out his madness (emphasis on flesh). Stumbling across two dead teenagers in a crashed car by the side of a forest road, Lester defiles a female corpse and then drags it back to his shack for more of the same in a cruel parody of an adolescent mating ritual. The forcible austerity of Franco’s presentation—the lack of music; the off-center camera compositions that push the taboo act to the edges of the frame—suggests a filmmaker trying to tamp down the sensationalism of his subject matter, and yet they’re also unmistakably heightening techniques—rib-nudging signifiers of serious intent. It’s the sort of filmmaking often described as “unflinching,” which is another way of saying that the director has a pretty good poker face while he’s playing a prurient game—one where stepping out of bounds can be seen as a sign of victory.
Except that in scene after scene, Child of God keeps coloring inside the lines: following McCarthy’s lead, Franco keeps trying to “humanize” Lester to the point that the supposed deep ambivalence of the story—the push-pull between revulsion and recognition that theoretically lends it power—is obliterated. Like Stanley Kubrick (and this is the only way that he is like Stanley Kubrick), Franco makes the other people around his protagonist so hateful or indistinct that he compels our attention and sympathies by either default or sheer attrition. (It helps that Haze is an attractive performer even under all his neo-Lon Chaney tics and twitches.) Like McCarthy, Franco doubles down on Lester’s isolation—much of the film is comprised of shots of him walking, running, and gamboling alone against the tree-line—but it’s hard to measure his distance from civilization when civilization itself is a structuring absence. Shots of Lester departing a local carnival hugging a pair of massive stuffed animals he’s won in a shooting game are literally and figuratively too cute; as a supposedly vanguard artist struggling to approximate a sense of outré-dark, Franco betrays some very conventional ideas about audience-identification.
A sharply edited scene in which Lester lays waste to his furry friends is striking, but as usual in this film, there is a one-to-one ratio of imagery and symbolism. When the teddy bears’ heads are blown up Scanners-style by shotgun blasts, we know it’s just a practice round for Lester’s final, sustained assault on a society that has no place for him. The final passages of Child of God are probably its most entertaining, for reasons that have a little bit to do with Franco’s filmmaking—Lester’s escape from a lynch mob into a series of underground caves achieves an admirable sense of visual abstraction—and a lot to do with his presence onscreen.
Not that the director is particularly convincing in his cameo role as the ringleader of the group hoping to bring Lester (who at this point in the story has gone full Ed Gein, embarking on hunting expeditions wearing the scalps of his victims) to justice. Rather, the sight of Franco’s character lazily and inadvertently allowing an offender to slip out of his clutches, never to be seen again, functions inadvertently and rather satisfyingly as an allegory for the movie’s failure. Many directors have reached beyond their grasp, but few have tried to put their fingers in as many pies as Franco. Reports from Cannes suggest that his version of As I Lay Dying has a firmer grip its source material; with Child of God, he’s come up empty-handed.