I sat still after the United States premiere of James Franco's "Child of God" at the New York Film Festival, not as much contemplating whether or not it was good as I was considering whether or not I liked it. Mostly true to the Cormac McCarthy novel on which it was based, the film follows the cloistered and violent existence of Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) who lives isolated in the woods of Tennessee committing crimes of the most grotesque caliber. I won't say much more about the plot other than the fact that the sadistic actions shown on screen evoke an uneasy humor, a disturbing essence of comical brutality. To say the least, this movie is not for the queasy or the fainthearted. You will squirm.
James Franco decided to organize the film into three acts, clearly distinguished from one another by title cards. While the producer argued this was done to manifest the passage of time, I felt it had no such effect. To add to this distortion of time and space, scenes are executed as vignettes. There's a constant transition fading in and out of the action, not only prompting confusion as to how much time passes between each scene, but also distracting the audience from the plot by means of excessive filmmaking. Some scenes exist solely for the purpose of character development while others seem to have no function at all. The relevant vignettes are strung together by a consistently distressed brain. While this structure may detract from the linear storyline, it instead leaves more up to interpretation and imagination. No number of scenes can embody the true insanity of Lester Ballard, we can only imagine what madness must be going on between the fades.
Scott Haze's performance as Lester Ballard is probably the most memorable and noteworthy aspect of the film. Haze, who lived alone in caves and lost 45 pounds to prepare for this dynamic and challenging role, brilliantly expresses the complex lunacy of Ballard. He adjusted his voice to a barely comprehensible Tennessee accent and habitually licks his lips and bares his teeth, similar to Heath Ledger's Joker. Admitting that he channeled troubles from his own past when confronting the character, Haze often appears ignorant and childlike, constantly screaming and salivating, a repulsive portrait of a man bore from nature's womb. While sometimes funny, his interactions with his victims are unsettling yet strangely amorous. Just like in the writing of Cormac McCarthy, the audience lacks any sympathy for Ballard, for it's nearly impossible to relate to him. Franco isn't looking for your sympathy, he wants nothing more than your intrigue and attention. To witness Haze is to observe an animal, wild, vicious, and savage. The only other notable performance is that of Tim Blake Nelson playing Sheriff Fate. He conducted the role with a mediated honesty, constructing as realistic a character as possible and standing out within the frame, even with minimal screen time.
All things considered, the technical aspects of the film are quite impressive. Funded out of James Franco's own pocket, the movie looks and sounds great considering its modest budget. The cinematography of the rural Tennessee landscape is eerily beautiful, shot hand-held on a handful of Canon 5Ds. The desaturated and gritty colors add an appropriate rustic feel to the film, further enhancing the forest terrain. The original music, although not particularly memorable, suits the setting well. Furthermore, the nameless narration was true to McCarthy's technique and certainly added to the tone of the film, keeping the audience attentive all the same. Overall, the movie's unsensational filmmaking is entirely fitting, ensuring the horrors on screen are ever more explicit, ever more real.
You can tame the land, but you can't tame a man. "Child of God" is a commentary about the dispossessed in an incestuous homeland. Littered with existential imagery and dialogue, the film offers a respectful and honest rendering of the novel. While I may not agree with some storytelling elements and approaches, Franco still manages to get the point across and deliver a message, a testament to rejection, violence, and humanity. The film is definitely worth a watch if you can stomach it and works as a cogent visual supplement to the novel. I look forward to seeing more James Franco adaptations in the future.