Child of God Review

James Franco's new directorial effort, Child of God, tackles Cormac McCarthy and necrophilia. Yet, it is as lifeless as the love interests.

James Franco has had a rough month. Described as a “renaissance man” equally by his most fawning of admirers and snarkiest of critics, the actor known for dabbling in nearly every form of visual art imaginable just got finished being thoroughly roasted by his friends on Comedy Central only a few weeks ago. The jokes were mean, plentiful and a little unfair (special points to Aziz Ansari for coming to the defense of Franco’s cleanliness). Ergo, I hate to kick an artist while he’s down. Yet, when the most interesting part of the Child of God screening I attended at the New York Film Festival was his non-visual Skype session Q&A (he’s studying for his PhD currently), then your movie has problems. Child of God marks Franco’s second consecutive effort in the director’s chair this year to adapt a respected work of literature. Having previously attempted William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Franco now turns his camera to Cormac McCarthy for this go-round. I have yet to read this particular McCarthy story, however I am sure that the author’s unique wit and ashen prose finds the beauty within the scorched soul of Lester Ballard, a serial necrophiliac and eventual killer. But with this picture, there is only the grotesque ugliness one would normally associate with deceased sexy time in all other perverse hands, including Franco’s. To the film’s credit, Franco reveals a previously untapped acting reservoir in leading man Scott Haze who wholly inhabits this unholy of creations. Lester Ballard is initially the pitiful monster in every sense of the word. Likely a child of special needs long undiagnosed, Lester has grown into a “man of leisure” in the wilds of 1960s Tennessee. He has been cast away by a society that deems him a monster. But perhaps it is for good reason.  After spending listless hours and days moving from one miserable hole in the ground to another as winter comes, the only point of drive in poor Lester is never forgetting to stalk the current occupant of his childhood home. The wayward lad eventually stumbles upon a vehicle with young teenage lovers within. This is not his first choice moment of voyeurism, as his only interaction with others, besides the stuffed animals he won at a nearby fair, has consisted of momentary self-pleasure in the dark behind necking teens. However, this particular duo has mysteriously died. And where there are corpses, there is an opportunity. At first, Lester seems to cling to the corpse of the young woman like it is another of his stuffed animals, though this one he can play with in more delightful ways. Eventually though, dead bodies prove to be ephemeral companions, and this unwise, loneliest of creatures must find new friends wherever they may be. Child of God is a product of Southern Gothic doggerel that onscreen just appears to be a dog. Franco heroically sprinkles in much of the varied narration from the book, both first-person and otherwise, but the verse falls through the picture and into the perpetually bleak Appalachian foliage beneath the frame. Much like the editing of the film, which is intentionally incoherent, there is little rhythm and purpose to the juxtaposition of word to image or scene to scene. Likely, it was a choice to be as despondent as McCarthy’s musings, but instead of creating a level of intimacy, it solely distracts to the point of tedium. Yet, the weakest beam to this house of cards is how it all so under serves what is a remarkable turn by Haze as Lester. In the actor’s hands, his level of forlornness is only ever surpassed by the overriding sense to look away, lest the character somehow spot you through the celluloid and claim you as his next victim of desperate attention. Of course, that attention turns deadly as the movie reaches its third act. The locals who reluctantly put up with the hermit in the woods are barely a force in the film, though they are peppered with terrific character actors like Tim Blake Nelson as the sheriff, Jim Parrack as his deputy, and James Franco himself as a brother of one of the girls who goes missing.  If the film intends for us to fear for Lester’s safety when mountain justice comes into play, it has missed its mark like so much else. Still, I must confess that once I began considering Lester’s stuffed tiger doll as a character vital to the emotions of the protagonist, there was a certain level of empathy achieved. The effect is even more isolating when Lester’s first human doll begins taking on the dimensions and qualities he projects after buying her a dress. Unfortunately, the promise shown in the film’s performances, including the stilted ones, cannot compensate for a project so disoriented that it will take the time to study its anti-hero’s bowel movements, as if creating a metaphor for the entire enterprise. During the Q&A, Franco curiously admitted that this is his second film about necrophilia, if one counts the NYU short “Herbert White.” Franco admits to finding an aloof humanity expressed in the extremeness inherent with laying down by the dead. What is a better metaphor for a man’s need for companionship? During that session, the moderator told Franco that this is the greatest film about necrophilia that’s ever been made. Come to think of it, that may be right. Like Lester Ballard, Child of God is a king on its small hill. Or is that a mound? This review was first published on September 25, 2013.Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!


2 out of 5