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Child of God

Now, the phrase “Child of God” appears TWICE on James Franco’s resume…

After losing his family land to auction, Lester Ballard, a man already prone to violence and uncivilized behavior, retreats to the backwoods of Sevier County, Tennessee. As he devolves deeper and deeper into a feral state, Ballard begins a descent into madness, committing increasingly horrific crimes including assault, rape, murder, necrophilia, and even the shooting of unarmed stuffed animals. All the while, the local sheriff both semi-obsessively hunts Ballard and empathizes with what he has been forced to become.

Directed and co-written by the ever-prolific James Franco, Child of God is a fairly faithful (perhaps, too faithful even) adaptation of the 1976 novel of the same name by the notoriously hard-to-film Cormac McCarthy. While I certainly appreciate the greatness of McCarthy’s work, I won’t even pretend to have a working understanding of what it is that is so special about his prose. But, I do understand enough to recognize that Franco doesn’t fully grasp it either. No fault of his – McCarthy is just like that.

Child of God
Written & Directed by James Franco
Cast James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Parrack
Release Date 2014
Jason's Grade: C+

I definitely commend Franco for taking on such challenging subject matter and I believe that he absolutely nails an appropriate tone to make it play.  His lead character commits some pretty foul acts during the course of his story, and while it’s never particularly graphic, Franco certainly doesn’t shy away from inserting us into his world.  There’s a certain lack of polish in Franco’s style, but it ultimately serves to make some of the horrors that much more horrific.  Occasionally, however, some of the choices seem to be a bit indulgent, including a late-film cameo by Franco himself that proves to be more of a distraction than an addition (he genuinely doesn’t fit into the scene).  Fortunately, it's a very short appearance, despite what the movie's poster might suggest.

Visually, the film lacks a consistent theme to tie it all together; a little mise en scene seems necessary in a film like this.  In the first act (the film, like the novel, is divided into three specific acts) is bogged down by a need to over-emphasize McCarthy’s words.  They appear partially in the form of multiple narrators, filling us in on a little bit of Ballard’s backstory, reading directly from McCarthy’s text.  Several of these narrators, however, don’t appear particularly invested in the story they are telling, so it suggests to the audience that perhaps they should feel the same, even making one wonder (with futility) whether the narrators may prove unreliable.  More successful, but still not entirely so, are the inclusion of several passages from the book in the form of on-screen text.  Fortunately, both of these unnecessary gimmicks are dropped almost entirely fairly early as no adaptation needs to be that direct.

The majority of the time is spent with Ballard, largely by himself, so it’s quite fortunate that actor Scott Haze happens to be excellent in the role.  Using some method actor preparation to get ready for the role, Haze absolutely inhabits Ballard.  Much of Ballard’s dialogue is indecipherable, lost to the backwoods drawl and mumble that he adopts.  It’s a risky move considering that he does the lion’s share of the speaking, but it pays off.  Ultimately, because he is generally speaking to himself or projections he has placed on inanimate objects (or, formerly animate people), it doesn’t really matter what he says.  A role like this would not have worked with a well-known actor, but Haze finds the right air and nails it.  We get to watch what little bit of humanity that he had remaining disappear, bit by bit, and he makes it riveting.  Despite the horrible things that he does, we still want to be on his side, even if we aren’t.

But, because the journey that the lead character takes is not particularly winding or multi-faceted, more time with some of the other characters, the sheriff especially, would have added some much-needed context to hold our interest.  Sure, we watch him descend pretty deep into madness, but quite frankly, he didn’t have that far to go when we first met him.  Tim Blake-Nelson, as the sheriff, is excellent, but you’ll wish that we got more of him.  He seems a perfect fit for a McCarthy role (and, his early writer/director work suggests that he might be a pretty solid choice to adapt McCarthy’s work, as well).

Cinematography, editing, and especially a bluegrass-tinged score (cleverly brought into the action after the opening credits) are all excellent and really elevate the material.  Also, Franco is wise to inject a steady, but not overly present, streak of dark humor throughout.  It’s especially evident in a particularly effective scene midway through in which Ballard feels forced to dispatch his only friends, a group of stuffed animals, after he perceives their betrayal.  The camera shots, particularly the close-ups, frame the “executions” as if we were watching the real thing, and it’s a perfect blend of the funny and the maudlin.

JASON’S FINAL THOUGHTS:

I imagine the point, and it's a good one, in McCarthy's story is that the seed is already planted within all of us to perform the type of evil deeds that Ballard is guilty of, but, for most of us, that seed never blooms in the environments we live in.  As a filmmaker telling that story, Franco is largely successful.  As one attempting to make a film that grasps more than just the most basic of themes inherent in McCarthy’s work, Franco does not fully acquit himself victoriously, unfortunately.  As a director, Franco definitely shows that he has chops, but his ever more ubiquitous presence, in Hollywood and beyond, might be serving to spread himself too thin.  It’s not that he doesn’t have the talent to have made this an outstanding adaptation, but rather, perhaps, that he just didn’t have the time…

Review by Lead Film Critic/Writer, Jason Howard

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