One must credit Franco's ambitions to adapt these hard-to-film pieces of literature, though this film proves that literal adaptations are not his strongest suit.
Child of God
James Franco continues his efforts of adapting classic literature into films, first with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and now Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. This is not a surprising choice considering Franco has a PhD in English literature and seems to get a kick out of adapting “unfilmable” novels. Those familiar with McCarthy’s unapologetic story know what they’re getting into. But for others this graphic tale about a necrophile cave dweller who descends further and further into madness will be an eye-opener.
Child of God sets the cruel tone from the beginning when a belligerent outsider named Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) wails obscenities towards potential land buyers at an auction, claiming the land belongs to his family. The camera ferociously moves to catch up with the slouching outcast, imitating the blaring commotion caused by Lester. His speech is barely comprehensible, not because of a thick Tennessee accent, but because of his primal-like vocabulary and delivery.
At the heart of this disturbing story is Lester’s severe isolation and sexual perversity. With his property now gone, Lester wanders off into the deep-South wilderness, becoming more unhinged with each step he takes from society. His cruel crimes escalate from being accused of rape, to necrophilia, to eventually becoming a serial killer.
Child of God is an exhausting watch for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, the perverse themes and graphic imagery are not exactly easy to digest. No pun intended, but in one scene the main character takes a shit and wipes his ass with a stick, leaving nothing to the imagination. In another he masturbates outside of a vehicle while watching a couple having sex in it. Another reason the film will test your patience is that too often scenes have Lester screaming on a hill or struggling to move a lifeless body, occupying the screen for way longer than needed. There are probably more grunts and screams in the film than real words. Yes, that might fit the bill for a character who is more animal-like than human, but it doesn’t make it any less tiresome.
Without question the best part of the film is Scott Haze’s unflinching performance. His dedication to the role is on display in every frame. It’s safe to say that any role that requires on-camera defecation in the forest and having intercourse with a dead woman is a challenge. Haze tackles the brutal assignment with relative ease, earning the right for his name to appear on upcoming “Actors to Watch” lists.
Just like McCarthy’s novel, the film is structured into three segments, each shown on title cards along with excerpts from the book. Unfortunately, these choppy poetic proses–though beautifully written–don’t have the same impact when extracted and displayed onscreen. Another failed stylistic choice by Franco were the repeated fade-to-black transitions between scenes. They constantly serve as a reminder of how not to end a chapter in film.
All in all, the graphic themes and imagery found in Child of God are better left on paper than captured on camera. One must credit Franco’s ambitions to adapt these hard-to-film pieces of literature, though Child of God proves that literal adaptations are not his strongest suit. Instead of straight interpretations perhaps Franco should use his creative talent to re-imagine concepts or conceive new ones. I have little doubt that Franco is a talented filmmaker, I just wish he’d keep classic literature on his bookshelf.