James Franco’s infatuation with the literati and his desire to be among the ranks continues with this adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel (his third) about a mentally handicapped malcontent who loses the family farm and evolves into something more feral and arguably evil. Best known for his Spiderman roles and Oscar-nominated turn in 127 Hours, Franco has just a small part in the film and steps behind the lens to helm the effort. It’s not the actor’s first time in the director’s chair; last year he tackled William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and he’s working on a biopic of Charles Bukowski. (Purportedly, Franco wants to attempt an adaptation of Faulkner’s seemingly unadaptable The Sound and the Fury.)
Franco himself got the literary-to-screen treatment earlier this year when a collection of his short stories about growing up in the California ’burbs was crafted into the movie Palo Alto by Gia Coppola. Franco also had a role in that film, directed and starred in The Broken Tower, a biopic about the poet Harry Crane, and also played the renowned beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Jeffery Friedman and Rob Epstein’s tepid docudrama, Howl.
Child of God is a pretty straight-forward affair that opens interestingly enough as a mentally deficient young man is put out of his house and subsequently lurks in the woods nearby. From thereon unfortunately, the film becomes a rote character study without much arc. The touch of an addled mind glowering at those who cast him out—and ostensibly seeking a little payback—lays fertile ground, but Franco hangs tight to the source, which with McCarthy can be a tricky deal. The Road and All the Pretty Horses missed wide even as the Coens struck gold with No Country For Old Men. (Meanwhile, like The Sound and Fury, McCarthy’s opus, Blood Meridian has remained a legendary work that has proven difficult if not impossible to transpose to celluloid.)
For obvious reasons too, it’s a tough undertaking to endear sociopaths, serial killers and their ilk as something more, something human. No Country worked because Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) was novel and was played up for his novelty. He was also offset by a series of flawed, yet heroic characters (played by Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Woody Harrelson). Child of God offers no such thing. Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) educes sympathy initially; he’s alone, angry and determined. And even when he finds a pair of teenagers expired from noxious car fumes and claims the young woman’s corpse as his lover, given the setting and the state of his limited and tortured reasoning, it’s somehow understandable. But then, when Lester goes on killing spree to increase his harem, all feeling and investment, limited as it may have been, is lost.
Franco plumbs deep down into the primal bowels of Lester, literally—showing him defecate (sans stunt poo?) and later, his exposed, humping rear bobbing in the backseat of a car as his necrophiliac endeavors take on increasing ardor. As the malfunctioning Lester, Haze employs a touch of Rain Man-esque ticks blended with a heathy dose of backwoods dip-shit-ery. It’s an uneven performance, in part because Haze is such a chiseled, good-looking young lad, but when soiled and in the pits (literally) and chewing up the scene, the performance at times transcends the material and Franco’s hand.
Child of God is certainly not for most, and definitely not those god fearing souls who may find the cynical motif play of the title offensive (let alone the underlying, sin-driven content). It’s a mean, shitty world out there, and sometimes people who aren’t dealt a decent hand like Lester get played for the villain and ultimately become the excreted realization of what the flock has branded them—a self-fulfilling boomerang from hell, if you will. Is it god, the hand of man or something more that makes Lester such a deviant nightmare? Those are the themes and probings loosely floated in Child of God, but sometimes shit, piss and fuck is just shit, piss and fuck.
Director: James Franco
Writer: Cormac McCarthy, Vince Jolivette, James Franco
Starring: Scott Haze, James Franco
Release Date: Aug. 1, 2014
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, MA. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.