Whether or not the film works may very well come down to one simple question, did you read the book beforehand?
As I Lay Dying (Cannes Review)
At the very least, you must credit James Franco for even attempting to film what some consider to be a near impossible story to tell. William Faulkner’s classic 1930 novel, As I Lay Dying, features 15 different characters, each telling a part of the story in their point of view. Director James Franco does a marvelous job of recreating this by showing many parts of the film with a split screen that often shows one character speaking on one side and the reaction of the other character on the other side. Franco can now mark another tally under his growing collection of experimental films.
The overall plot of As I Lay Dying is a fairly simple one; a family travels on a journey to the town of Jefferson in order to fulfill the requests of recently deceased family member named Addie Bundren. The real story lies within all the details and burdens each character brings to the table. But the details are rather long-winded, which makes following what exactly is going on a bit challenging.
The biggest obstacle comes on the first day of their long-haul. The group must cross a river with their wagon that is carrying the coffin without the use of a bridge due to massive flooding. Their only option is to try crossing with the aid of an improvised ford, but it does end smoothly. One of the traveler’s leg gets badly injured during this mishap and requires some serious medical attention. I will spare some of the gruesome details that ensue when they attempt to treat the wound themselves.
I must confess that I did not read the novel before seeing the film and I think it was a real challenge because of that fact. There are indeed many films that you can get by just fine without having read the literature beforehand, however, I do not believe As I Lay Dying fits into that category. Not helping matters is a character named Anse (Tim Blake Nelson) who would give Bane (of The Dark Knight Rises) a run for his money at being more incomprehensible. The combination of his rotting teeth and extreme Southern drawl made it difficult to understand more than every tenth word he spoke. Even though As I Lay Dying is an English speaking film, the French speaking audience members at this screening likely better understood what was being said because they at least had subtitles to read.
James Franco came on stage to introduce the film at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and bluntly said, “This is a weird film.” Indeed it was. For better or worse, As I Lay Dying certainly felt like a literal interpretation of the novel, but as I mentioned before I have not read the book, therefore I cannot say that with absolute certainty. The acting in the film was very strong but the obvious standout is the film’s poetic and Malick like cinematography. Whether or not the film works may very well come down to one simple question, did you read the book beforehand?