It’s almost too easy to take cheap shots at James Franco. At the recent Comedy Central Roast, his friends and colleagues had a field day taking aim at the multi-hyphenate’s various avatars: the Hollywood star, the pothead, the earnest PhD student of English literature, the filmmaker with an eccentric slate of self-consciously arty movies, and so on. But say what you like, he acquits himself admirably with his latest directorial effort, Child of God, a serious and unflinching adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel about a loner pushed to the extreme edges of society. Extreme is no exaggeration here, as we’re talking about necrophilia and serial murder. Still, in a pivotal scene in this bleak but not humorless movie, Franco achieves the rare feat of showing us his protagonist at his most human at the very moment he’s turning into his most monstrous.
From the start, we see this story, which takes place in rural Tennessee, through the eyes of the unkempt outcast Lester Ballard. In the opening sequence, he’s unsuccessfully trying to prevent his family land from being auctioned. Rejection by the local townsfolk marks his descent down a spiral that will push him further and further away from civilized world and deeper into madness. Regardless of the viewer’s tolerance for the ensuing raw scenes of hardship and survival, and the depths of degradation to which Ballard will sink, the film’s unquestionable asset is Scott Haze’s astounding visceral performance as the feral man running berserk in the woods. Neither director nor actor shy away from pushing the limits; the drooling and sputtering Ballard’s bodily functions are on full graphic display from defecation to masturbation. But what could have easily registered as an actor’s indulgent collection of tics and tricks comes across instead as disturbingly real. Haze’s relative obscurity no doubt helps, but it’s also the actor’s ability to allow Ballard’s humanity to peek through the wild mountain man that makes this a remarkable performance.
Emphasizing the literary source of the movie, perhaps a little too obviously, the script (written by Franco and Vince Jolivette) follows the novel’s three-chapter structure, introducing each segment with snippets of Cormac’s text printed across the screen; passages from the book are also narrated in voiceovers throughout the movie. In the second chapter, Ballard, pushed out from the farm, is now living in a derelict cabin which barely keeps out the winter winds, surviving on whatever he can forage or hunt. Increasingly isolated from the world, his only company is three stuffed animals he wins at a local county fair. With quiet humor, Franco gradually draws us into Ballard’s off-kilter world to the extent that we come close to viewing these toys as the isolated man’s friends. Franco has said that he sees the McCarthy story as an extreme way to examine the universal need for one human to make a connection with another—the need to love and be loved. In his desperate attempt to make that connection, Ballard finally crosses the line after he accidentally encounters a couple asphyxiated in their car (a suicide pact?) and decides to bring the young woman’s corpse home. Franco and Haze handle the ensuing scene, in which Ballard perversely conducts a courtly conversation with his quarry before he rapes his new imaginary friend which great finesse, infusing it with a grotesque sweetness that lingers even as our own ethical and moral responses kick in.
In keeping with its subject, the movie has a rough-hewn quality; Christina Voros’s stark cinematography takes full advantage of the West Virginia landscapes, a stand in for Sevier County, Tennessee, the setting of the McCarthy story. The grim passages of the movie are somewhat leavened by Aaron Embry’s bluegrass score, bringing to mind Deliverance, another tale of rural horror. It’s been said that some of McCarthy’s inspiration for Ballard came from the real-life killer Ed Gein, whose gory exploits also provided a template for Norman Bates, Leatherface, and the serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs. By film’s end, when Ballard literally descends underground, into the caves, for his final refuge, the grisly connections to Gein, who stockpiled his victims’ corpses and made trophies from their skin, become more apparent. But Franco hasn’t made an entertainment with added shock value. Taking his cue from McCarthy’s own text, which notes that Ballard is “a child of god, much like yourself,” he’s set his sights on creating a portrait of a truly disturbed man who reflects human nature back to us, albeit through a very distorted glass.
The New York Film Festival runs from September 27—October 13.