A shootout involving Buffalo Bill-style drag may suggest otherwise, but there’s reportedly only one scene in James Franco’s Child of God that sees the director and co-writer add to the text of Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 source novel. It crops up about halfway through the moral and primal degradation of lead character Lester Ballard (Scott Haze), the wild-dog pariah of Tennessee’s Sevier County circa 1960, and it features Lester opening fire on the life-sized stuffed animals he won at a local carnival—his only friends in the world. Tellingly, the scene also includes the film’s most glaringly excessive and meaninglessly emphasized shot, wherein Lester’s tearful outburst of anger and anguish produces a thick stream of white snot the length of an earthworm. Given that Haze seems to give every ounce of his Dallas-bred being to this part (he prepped for the role for a year, and even lived in caves like Lester amid the film’s actual setting), it’s clear the snot is just one more thing that naturally emerged from this actor’s body during his shockingly feral performance. But the way in which Franco presents this moment—as a vital image worth hammering home instead of a fleeting detail for a subtle boost of characterization—speaks to an off-putting aura that looms over the film at large, and implies that its maker is one of arbitrary, sophomoric, and, at last, indulgent proclivities.
To call Franco “indulgent” may sound like a no-brainer at this point, but since the restless, outré A-lister has thus far balanced his virtually peerless ubiquity with screwball comedy, queer interests, no-gig-too-small guest spots, and “prestigious” literary pursuits, it seems the jury remains out on whether there’s true virtue and validity to all that self-aggrandizement. With Child of God, it may finally be time to call “bullshit,” at least in regard to Franco as a filmmaker.
That’s an intentionally non-definitive statement, because Franco, who co-adapted McCarthy’s perverse character study with Vince Jolivette, does triumph in fits and starts, and ultimately paints a rather vivid portrait of Lester, a dirt-caked necrophile so drastically removed from society that when he stumbles upon the soil of someone living adjacent to his backwoods stomping grounds, the declaration of “This is private property!” leaves him utterly dumbfounded (“This is my home,” Lester growls). And Franco stages one extraordinary scene that gets at the odd heart of the pitiful antihero (“a child of God much like yourself perhaps,” McCarthy’s text reads). Sleeping in his secluded shack, while his plush animal friends look on and the first of many corpse brides sits hidden in his attic, Lester suffers the consequences of putting one too many logs on the fire, and wails while his home burns down and he’s unable to save his lifeless lady love. By turns darkly comic, tragic, and surprisingly sympathetic, it’s the only bit to be gracefully helmed in a way that encapsulates the material’s tone.
Otherwise, Franco proceeds in a distressingly artless fashion, with extended takes of Lester struggling to lift a body, or screaming on a hillside, as devoid of notable, resonant undercurrents as a randomly highlighted, rainbow lens flare. Working again with cinematographer and constant collaborator Christina Voros, who also shot his oft-insufferable NYU thesis film, The Broken Tower, Franco’s general aesthetic is ugly and ambling as well, not so much because of its brownish-gray monochrome, but because it registers like the jerky result of a college kid wielding a DV cam.
Worst of all, for someone who’s so unceasingly interested in the great poets and writers of our time, and insists on using his platform and prowess as a means of adapting and translating their work, Franco only seems capable of making poetic cinema in the most literal sense. Like Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl, in which Franco starred, The Broken Tower saw the actor blandly and pompously reciting poetry for the camera, and like that film, Child of God is divvied up into pieces that plainly play like stanzas. Indeed, the film unfolds in three distinct acts, just like McCarthy’s book, but Franco insists, like a junior Lars von Trier, on announcing those acts with title cards, and he furthermore cuts to black with much greater frequency than Lester beds dead women. However reflective of McCarthy’s choppy prose, the breaks are less effective than they are distancing, and they don’t come off like lyrical stylistic choices so much as amateurish transitional shortcomings.
To really appreciate Child of God, one needs to look past Franco’s lack of formal poetry and focus on Haze’s performance and McCarthy’s themes, which, given the great might of both, isn’t exactly hard to do. But what lingers is the sense that the ever-busy Franco is ultimately a faux provocateur, who’s admirably attracted to both underworld fare and challenging work from the likes of McCarthy and Faulkner, but doesn’t have the chops—or, quite possibly, the time—to genuinely articulate it.