×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cannes Film Review: ‘As I Lay Dying’

A competently acted, technically adequate Cliff Notes take on Faulkner's tale of dirt-poor Mississippi folk in mourning.

With:
James Franco, Logan Marshall-Green, Jim Parrack, Tim Blake Nelson, Ahna O’Reilly, Brady Permenter, Beth Grant, Brian Lally, Danny McBride.

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.

Cannes Film Review: 'As I Lay Dying'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 20, 2013. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production: A Millennium Films presentation and production in association with Rabbitbandini Productions, Lee Caplin/Picture Entertainment Corp. (International sales: Metropolitan Filmexport, Paris.) Produced by Lee Caplin, Matt O’Toole, Rob Van Norden, Caroline Aragon, Miles Levy, Vince Jolivette. Executive producers, Avi Lerner, Trevor Short, Heidi Jo Markel, John Thompson, Boaz Davidson, Mark Gill. Co-executive producer, Lonnie Ramati.

Crew: Directed by James Franco. Screenplay, Franco, Matt Rager, based on the novel by William Faulkner. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Christina Voros; editor, Ian Olds; music, Timothy O’Keefe; production designer, Kristen Adams; art director, Eric Morell; set decorator, James Wiley Fowler; costume designer, Caroline Eselin-Schaefer; sound, Nikolas Zasimczuk; supervising sound editor, Steven Iba; re-recording mixers, Richard “Tricky” Kitting, Jason “Frenchie” Gaya, Spencer Schweiterman; visual effects, Wildfire Visual Effects; stunt coordinator, Thomas Kevin Beard; line producer, Kirk Michael Fellows; assistant director, Caroline Aragon; casting, Matthew Morgan.

With: James Franco, Logan Marshall-Green, Jim Parrack, Tim Blake Nelson, Ahna O’Reilly, Brady Permenter, Beth Grant, Brian Lally, Danny McBride.

More Film

  • 'Brokeback Mountain,' 'Jurassic Park' Added to

    'Brokeback Mountain,' 'Jurassic Park,' 'My Fair Lady' Added to National Film Registry

    “Brokeback Mountain,” “Jurassic Park,” “My Fair Lady,” “The Shining,” “Hud” and “Monterey Pop” are among the best known titles among this year’s additions to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. A place on the list — always made up of 25 films — guarantees the film will be preserved under the terms [...]

  • Christian Bale'Vice' film premiere, Arrivals, Los

    Christian Bale Recalls Meeting Donald Trump: 'He Thought I Was Bruce Wayne'

    With Christian Bale’s latest film, “Vice,” a political dramedy, it’s inevitable ties will be drawn between the film and the current political administration and its chief, President Donald Trump. On the red carpet for the premiere of “Vice,” Bale, who stars as former Vice President Dick Cheney, shared that he met the current president while [...]

  • ‘Bumblebee’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad

    ‘Bumblebee’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV advertising attention analytics company iSpot.tv, Paramount Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Bumblebee.” Ads placed for the sci-fi/action film had an estimated media value of $6.31 million through Sunday for 941 national [...]

  • Ryan Reynolds Stunt

    Film News Roundup: Ryan Reynolds' Michael Bay Film '6 Underground' Wraps Production

    In today’s film news roundup, shooting has wrapped on Ryan Reynolds’ “6 Underground,” BAFTA LA names new board members, and the WGA East honors longtime exec Randall Jasta.  PRODUCTION More Reviews Film Review: 'Springsteen on Broadway' Off Broadway Review: 'Clueless' the Musical Michael Bay’s Ryan Reynolds-starrer “6 Underground” has wrapped production. Netflix and Skydance Media completed [...]

  • Bruce Springsteen on Broadway

    Film Review: 'Springsteen on Broadway'

    Hope you like the 69-year-old version of Bruce Springsteen’s face, because it’s virtually all you’re going to see for the two hours and 40 minutes of the filmed “Springsteen on Broadway” — other than the bare brick wall of the theater casting a dim glow in the background beyond those gray sideburns, and two songs’ [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    'A Star Is Born,' 'Vice' Lead 2018 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Nominees

    The Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) announced their nominees for the 8th annual AACTA International Awards on Tuesday. “A Star Is Born” and “Vice” lead the pack, with five and four nominations respectively. The two leading films compete with “BlacKkKlansman,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Roma” for best film, while Nicole Kidman becomes the [...]

  • China's Government Orders Talent Home to

    After Golden Horse Awards Embarrassment, China Orders Talent Home for Huabiao Ceremony

    China’s government quietly ordered top Chinese talent back to the mainland from abroad this past weekend to attend a Beijing ceremony for its highest film industry honors, the loosely bi-annual Huabiao Awards. The move came just weeks after it directed mainland film executives and talent to snub after-parties and return home as quickly as possible [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content