Barring a little noodling with split-screen compositions and to-camera monologues, James Franco plays it surprisingly straight with his latest directorial outing, a respectful, somewhat somnambulant adaptation of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” Eschewing the gay characters and experimental tics that have marked his previous efforts, to say nothing of his abundant output elsewhere as a literary writer and pop performance artist, Franco offers up a competently acted, technically adequate Cliff Notes take on Faulkner’s narratively refracted tale of dirt-poor Mississippi folk in mourning. Pic’s theatrical shelf life will be limited, but it has solid library potential, and a guaranteed audience base among English-lit majors behind on their term papers.
Published in 1930, “As I Lay Dying” holds a solid canonical position as one of Faulkner’s best, most frequently republished works, along with “The Sound and the Fury,” “Light in August” and “Absalom, Absalom!,” all of them set in the novelist’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, a Mississippi state of mind as well mapped mentally by its creator as Tolkien’s Middle-earth, but with even weirder language.
Although Faulkner’s finest works still pop up regularly on syllabi, especially as examples of peculiarly American-inflected iterations of high-modernist stream-of-consciousness fiction, his stock has waned slightly over the years in Anglophone academia. Not in Gaul, though, where excellent translations and the French infatuation with agrarian gothicism have made Faulkner a fetish object. It’s no surprise, then, that this particular tame but adequate literary adaptation should have found a Cannes berth.
Likewise, it somehow makes sense that Franco should turn to Faulkner’s rapturous, punch-drunk experimentalism, given all the early-to-mid-20th-century existentialist, outsider icons dotting the multihyphenate’s resume: He’s directed celebrations of the poet Hart Crane (“The Broken Tower”) and tragic thesp Sal Mineo (“Sal”), while elsewhere he’s played James Dean and Beat master Allen Ginsberg. There are even faint Faulknerian echoes detectable in his short-story collection “Palo Alto,” with its psychogeographic fixation on South Peninsula suburbia. Okay, maybe the “General Hospital” gig doesn’t quite fit the pattern, but Franco has been nothing if not perverse in his career choices.
A little perversity might have been welcome in “As I Lay Dying,” which, aside from the aforementioned stylistic flourishes and the use of slow-motion, is stodgily faithful to the book. The script, written by Franco with Matt Rager (a fellow student of his from Yale), represents a skillful bit of filleting, sticking to the novel’s structure as the story unfolds how the much-afflicted Bundren family (their name a near-acronym of “Burden”) copes with the challenge of moving the body and coffin of recently deceased matriarch Addie Bundren (Beth Grant).
It’s a two-day ride by horse and cart from their homestead to the town of Jefferson, and as the stench of Addie’s rotting body ripens in the heat, the mental maggots festering within begin to eat away at the family unit. Addie’s widower, Anse (Tim Blake Nelson, sporting the nastiest set of prosthetic teeth since Javier Bardem’s in “Skyfall”), bullies and manipulates his children for his own selfish ends, accidentally maiming eldest son Cash (Jim Parrack), selling off the beloved horse of perpetually cross son Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green), and selling out his mentally unbalanced son Darl (Franco) to avoid a debt (the film is less clear about this than the book).
Anse even steals money from his knocked-up teenage daughter, Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly), which was meant to pay for an abortion. Youngest child Vardaman (Brady Permenter) is the only one Anse doesn’t actively wound psychologically or physically, but the kid’s already traumatized by his mother’s death as it is. Cheerful this story is not.
The script does a reasonably good job of evoking the material’s oneiric spirit and teaming cauldron of voices without resorting to too much narration. Then again, the language is sort of the whole point, as the book’s 15 different narrators represent a finely tuned orchestra ranging from the homespun musings of the earthier characters to the much more literary, highfalutin discourse attributed to Darl, which, as many a critic has remarked, seems far beyond the character’s educational means. Even so, the cast is strong enough, especially from Nelson, Marshall-Green and Franco himself (apart from a bit of high-pitched “crazy” acting in the last act), to imbue the characters with inner lives.
Presumably the use of split-screen, enabled by lenser and regular Franco collaborator Christina Voros, is meant to evoke the book’s multiple perspectives, but if so, it’s a rather literal device, and it comes as a relief when it’s largely dropped in the later reels. More effective is Timothy O’Keefe’s growling, ominous score, which builds a nice sense of foreboding, especially during a barn-burning sequence. Use of real Mississippi locations adds authenticity.