Moving right along from his well-received “As I Lay Dying,” James Franco hurls himself into the work of one of Faulkner’s spiritual descendants with this determinedly rough and ragged take on Cormac McCarthy’s chilling 1973 novel, “Child of God.” Descending into the cavernous lower depths of human depravity inhabited by Lester Ballard, modern literature’s most famous necrophile, Franco has emerged with an extremely faithful, suitably raw but still relatively hemmed-in adaptation that compares favorably with his earlier films, yet falls short of achieving a truly galvanizing portrait of social and sexual deviance. If commercial success remains well out of reach for a film with this many bodily fluids and violated corpses, the picture’s artistic seriousness and the unimpeachable commitment of Scott Haze in the Ballard role should nonetheless keep Franco’s partisans energized. A plum berth in the New York Film Festival will follow its North American premiere in Toronto.
Given the prestige clunkers of John Hillcoat’s “The Road” and Billy Bob Thornton’s “All the Pretty Horses,” plus the epic development-hell stagnation of “Blood Meridian,” credit Franco for taking the stripped-down, low-budget approach to an author whose work has generally been ill served by grand Hollywood treatment, the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” notwithstanding. One of many filmmakers once attached to direct “Blood Meridian” himself, Franco has set his sights on an easier target here. With its terrific narrative drive and serial-killer hook, “Child of God” is one of McCarthy’s most cinematic novels, and the helmer recognizes that a wild, unruly camera style is perhaps the nearest visual equivalent of the author’s spare, unvarnished prose.
Like the novel, the film (scripted by Franco and Vince Jolivette) is split into three acts, noted onscreen along with occasional screen-filling excerpts from McCarthy’s text, a mannered device that is fortunately kept to a minimum. The first section introduces and fleshes out the local mystique surrounding Lester Ballard (Haze), a resident of 1960s Sevier County, Tenn., for whom words like “pariah” and “village idiot” seem strangely inadequate. First seen waving a rifle and interrupting a town gathering where his property is being auctioned off, then shown defecating in the woods in graphic detail, Ballard is a feral, raving, violent, singularly disturbed individual, as bereft and shut off from society as a person can be.
Franco appropriates McCarthy’s technique of having nameless narrators tell tales from Ballard’s troubled upbringing, layering these random voiceovers over short, abruptly cut-to-black scenes that echo the book’s terse chapters. Given the general idiocy of what we see Ballard doing — stealing a chicken and shooting a cow for no reason, masturbating on a car fender while two people screw in the backseat — these segments are often grotesquely funny, especially when set to Aaron Embry’s twangy banjo-and-guitar score; one can almost imagine Ballard as some sort of recurring white-trash imbecile on “Saturday Night Live.”
The humor gets creepier in the second act, in which Ballard stumbles on the bodies of two lovers and, after having his way with the dead girl, decides to take her back to the rickety old cabin where he has taken shelter on the cold winter nights. What he does with the corpse next is played as tastefully and non-exploitatively as possible, and with a measure of real tenderness, which serves only to render the tableau all the more ghastly. From there, it’s a quick slide into the madness of act three, in which Ballard turns an underground cave into a charnel house of horrors, his total ostracization from humanity having been taken to its hideously logical conclusion.
Haze, a relative newcomer who subjected himself to all manner of Method madness in preparation for the shoot (including sleeping in caves), does everything a director could demand from an actor in this role and then some. He darts across rugged terrain and wriggles his way through dark tunnels; he convulses his body like that of a man possessed; he howls, barks, grunts and slurs his speech; he sheds copious amounts of snot. And through it all, he somehow manages to project a sufficient measure of star charisma to render this unsavory antihero almost sympathetic. That’s true to McCarthy’s famous conception of Ballard as “a child of God much like yourself perhaps,” positioning him on the extreme end of human experience, but supplying no simple, comforting explanations for his particular pathology.
Yet for all Haze’s fearless commitment, neither the performance nor the film that surrounds it wind up truly disturbing us in the way one would expect from a figure inspired by Ed Gein. The crazed intensity of Franco’s filmmaking, while duly evocative of Haze’s primitive state, is ultimately too hectic and unmodulated for anything to burrow deep and stay there. And the screenplay follows its source so meticulously as to suggest a collection of crazy stylistic tics imposed on the text from without, rather than a film that has reconceived its material from within. The result is a psychological portrait that almost seems to be willing Ballard’s meltdown rather than observing it, a film that feels curiously detached from its own artistry.
And that artistry is considerable. Lenser and regular Franco collaborator Christina Voros shoots on a muted color palette of dull grays and mud browns, and there’s a rough-hewn poetry to some of the images framing Ballard against a haggard wintry landscape. Curtiss Clayton’s jumpy editing is of a piece with the film’s unadorned aesthetic, and composer Embry’s country stylings complement the story’s shifting mood by turning increasingly, memorably somber in the second half.
Haze so dominates the proceedings that none of the other performances particularly register, and there’s a curiously unpopulated feeling to this ostensible portrait of a community gripped by fear of one individual. One exception is Tim Blake Nelson (also in “As I Lay Dying”), a standout among a clutch of unfamiliar faces, striking the right note of square-jawed stiffness as the high sheriff of Sevier County. Franco gives himself a brief cameo as one of the townsfolk.