Child of God: Franco’s Semi-Effective Literary Rendition

child_of_god_1_francoThe highly prolific, multi-hyphenate James Franco (actor, writer, director, teacher) may be experiencing a height in his creativity. But is he a good (or promising) director, based on the three films that he has helmed over the past year or so?

Based on the results, the answer is decidedly mixed.

Franco, who was Oscar-nominated for Best Actor in 112 Hours, is certainly a festival director, though not a critics’ darling as far as the artistic reception to his movies is concerned. (It doesn’t help that his films, all based on challenging texts, are not accessible or commercial, even by standards of independent cinema).

child_of_god_5_francoThe world-premiere in Cannes Fest of Franco’s As I Lay Dying, based on William Faulkner novel, was greeted with mixed response, and I expect the same would happen when his second literary adaptation, this time of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Child Of God, when it is shown at the New York Film Festival, after bowing in Toronto Fest last week.

Reportedly, McCormack’s 1973 novel was very loosely based on Ed Gein, the killer and scalper who inspired at least two clt movies, Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Franco may be working too fast and he also may be too faithful to the source material to create a work that’s satisfying as a film in its own right.

Under the helm of Franco, McCormack’s challenging novel about deranged depravity gets a semi-effective rendition, a result of Franco’s lack of experience as a director (he has problems with pacing and framing, among others) and the casting of Scott Haze in the demanding lead role, which calls for him to be on screen for most of the time.

child_of_god_2_francoIn essence, Lester Ballard is a psychopath and sociopath, a Tennessee backwoodsman who, a misfit rejected by society, descends into madness and bestiality, manifest in necrophilia as well as serial killing (of women).

Structurally, like the book, the film is divided into chapters. Congruent with McCarthy’s text, the film includes long monologues, delivered in voice-over by various narrators.

In one of the most frightful scenes, Lester encounters two lovers who have committed suicide in their car in the woods. After having sex with the dead girl, Lester takes her corpse to his cabin and keeps it there.

Members of the Ballard family was considered pariahs in Sevier County. An orphan, Lester had witnessed his father hanging himself when he was a young boy, a traumatic event that shaped his personality and the rest of his life.

When first observed, Lester is unwashed and unkempt, angry that his family farm is put for an auction. Thrown out of the property, he moves into an abandoned cabin in the woods.

child_of_god_3_francoThe human encounters of the mumbling, inarticulate Lester are limited in more senses than one, including run-ins with the local sheriff Fate (played by Tim Blake Nelson. Lester also speaks in such an indecipherable that the movie was shown at Venice with English subtitles.

Though not very bright, he is an outsider blessed with strong survivalist instincts. He is good with his rifle, which becomes his constant companion. His skillful shooting wins him three oversized furry animals at a fairground.
Lester is meant to be a primitive redneck, who shoots first and contemplates later, as is evident when for no apparent reason, he guns down a cow.

The mood of the tale gets considerably darker and scarier in the last reel. Lester’s deranged malevolence escalates further and further. Admittedly, it’s a challenge to elicit sympathy or empathy for such a villainous and repellent character, even when some psychological motivations are assigned (Hitchcock and few other directors were good at that).

For long, bland stretches of time, Franco depicts Lester as a wild child, a forest man observed excreting, then cleaning out with a stick, before again roaming the woods killing and collecting corpses.

Sporadically, Franco inserts touches of humor into the dark Southern Gothic tale (though an estimable colleague claimed after the screening that the comic relief was unintentional on Franco’s part).

In the background, we get a depiction of the wilderness and notions of the American Dream as a myth rather than reality.
Lester’s harsh life and stark setting are illustrated by cinematographer Christina Voros’ evocative imagery–the film was shot in West Virginia–which emphasizes throughout Lester’s idiosyncratic, distorted vision of himself and the world around him.

Considering that Franco began his career as–and still is–an actor, he has not coaxed particularly compelling performances from his small ensemble. The novel offers a bold, scary portraiture of a middle-age animal whose transgressive conduct is shocking, and while you respect Franco’s restrained and understated strategy, at the end, ultimately his film lacks both emotional and dramatic impact.

Some critics claimed the film is boring, others charged it’s pretentious. For me, it was just an honorable failure by a fledgling director. Based on his films thus far, Franco doesn’t strike me as a “natural” director with strong “visual” instincts, the way that, say, Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape) or Spike Lee (She’s Gott Have It) or Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy) were in their very first works.


Producers: Caroline Aragon, Vince Jolivette, Miles Levy
Screenplay: James Franco, Vince Jolivette
Cinematography: Christina Voros
Editor: Curtiss Clayton
Production designer: Kristen Adams
Music: Aaron Embry


Scott Haze
Tim Blake Nelson
Jim Parrack
Steve Hunter