With its relentless free-associative subjectivity narrated through a vast collection of dysfunctional cast-offs and derelicts, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying seems practically designed to be experienced solely in its original novel form, the author’s wholly unique style acting as a prescient form of repellant to keep filmmakers at bay since the book’s 1930 publication. Leave it to James Franco to dutifully take up the challenge of bringing Faulkner’s masterpiece to the screen, his literary ambitions as director becoming ever more fearless between this film and his adaptation of noted Faulkner disciple Cormac McCarthy’s equally difficult novella Child of God. But Franco’s readiness in approaching famously abstract source material certainly doesn’t translate well into his directorial formalism, or, more appropriately, lack of formalism. While the film version of As I Lay Dying remains incredibly faithful to the original story, its sloppy production values enact the text into a hastily assembled affair, with Faulkner’s dreamscape world of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi being only half-realized.
In what may be a given in any adaptation of the novel, As I Lay Dying is divorced of the flowing chain of thought that characterizes its source, made clear by the film’s objectively shot handheld aesthetic that gives it a hardened sense of immediacy. In telling the story of the flawed Bundren family as they travel to Jefferson, MS to bury the family matriarch, Addie (Beth Grant), Franco structures the film in an innocuous point-A-to-point-B fashion that takes precedent over characters’ individuality and almost renders them as ciphers. That’s not to say Franco doesn’t dramatize the interior monologues that drive the novel; not resting on mere voiceover, he films his actors speaking directly into the camera in an almost accusatory manner. The overall effect of this technique doesn’t draw us into a character’s mindset, but seems intended to be more like a Brechtian form of audience implication that more or less only evaluates character motivation.
Despite the conflicted endgame of this decision, what’s most interesting in As I Lay Dying’s craft is Franco’s extended use of split-screens, where either two scenes are occurring at once or the same scene is shown from two separate angles. This is the most successful cinematic trick Franco utilizes to capture Faulkner’s otherworldliness, as if the shots on either side of the screen are being comprehended or reinterpreted by two distinct personalities.
If the unwieldy camerawork betrays an ethereal sensation and grounds Faulkner’s text into firm realism, the film’s uncommonly committed actors distract, more often than not, from its formal shortcomings. Tim Blake Nelson is practically indecipherable behind an impressive set of false teeth as patriarch Anse, even if the vocal idiosyncrasies become tiring. Logan Marshall-Green equips himself well as Addie’s illegitimate child, Jewell, and Ahna O’Reilly brings a brave vulnerability to her portrayal of the sole Bundren daughter, Dewey Dell, modifying the character into something more than just another cog in the film’s thematic machine. Franco, when not concerned with hitting the story’s numerous complex beats, stages protracted scenes that allow the performances to permeate with a crackling unease that heightens the film’s unsettled tone more efficiently than its jarring photography.
There’s a gruesome scene toward the end of the film that perfectly encapsulates the sense of struggle that’s faced the Bundrens on their taxing journey, revealing what Franco seldom captured throughout the film’s duration. A character is at the mercy of a doctor amputating his leg, and the camera remains fixed to the sawing of the bone for an uncomfortable span of time. About halfway through the procedure, the doctor stops, catches his breath, and readjusts the saw, only to begin once again. The Bundrens treat their dangerous trek with indifference, naïveté, even presumptuousness, a trait of contrasting mannerisms that Faulkner distilled through diverse narration. Franco doesn’t necessarily emphasize these emotions until the vividly orchestrated operation, when the family’s reckless behavior catches up to them in an aptly laborious amputation and the realization of the clan’s folly finally unifies them. While Franco’s film is periodically riveting, its slapdash accumulation of character and production ultimately amounts to something like Faulkner-as-art-installation—and shows that some things may be better left read than seen.