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James Franco’s Smart, Stunning ‘Child of God’

James Franco's Smart, Stunning 'Child of God'

When I saw James Franco’s “Child of God” at the 2013  New York Film
Festival, I was impressed by how stunningly it captured Cormac
McCarthy’s merciless sensibility, but wondered how a film about such a
deliberately off-putting character would ever find a distributor or an
audience. The tough but serious and ambitious film opens tomorrow, an
accomplishment in itself. Here’s my festival review:   

If “Child of God”
had been made by James Franco instead of “James Franco,”  by just another filmmaker instead of the
public figure whose career and self-consciously created image seem like one hydra-headed
piece of performance art  — actor in
blockbusters and indies, fiction-writer, student at too many schools, the guy
slyly asked by Stephen Colbert, “Are you a fraud?” — it’s unlikely anyone would question
why it’s in the New York Film Festival. The film is a powerful adaptation of
Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel, directed  — and written by Franco and Vince Jolivette —
with such discipline and intelligence that it captures the mordant darkness of McCarthy’s
world.

That doesn’t mean it is pleasant or easy to watch. Set in the
isolated backwoods of Tennessee and shot in bleak brown tones, “Child of God” is about a serial
necrophiliac named Lester Ballard, repulsive, violent, barely civilized. Does a
movie’s main character shit in the woods? This one does, then wipes his butt
with a stick. (The scene is straight
from McCarthy’s novel.)  Next to “Child of God, ” “No Country for Old Men” plays like a lighthearted comedy.

The film doesn’t try to explain or justify Ballard, doesn’t
ask us to sympathize. Instead, it exposes a humanity so deeply buried beneath
the animal behavior we hardly believe it exists. That’s a difficult, delicate
balancing act, yet it’s exactly what Franco does.

We’re set up by a voiceover from Tim Blake Nelson as the sheriff,
who calls Ballard “a child of God, much like yourself perhaps.” At
the start, Ballard grunts, flails and attacks an auctioneer selling his family’s
land — and degenerates from there. Scott Haze plays Ballard with his eyes
rolled back in his head, mumbling and drooling; he’s so effective you might
think he was some feral child instead of a professional actor committed to
playing repugnant.

Without a home, Ballard lives in a barn, then the woods, scavenging
for food, regressing at every step. He stumbles across a couple parked in a
lovers’ lane having sex, and masturbates against the car. He finds another
parked couple dead from carbon monoxide, and makes the corpse of the woman his
new love interest, carrying her home as casually as he had earlier carried a
dead rabbit. One of the voiceovers scattered through the film speculates that
Ballard was never the same after his father’s suicide, letting us know that he
was not mentally damaged from birth. There seems to be no excuse for his
existence.

Yet the film makes its point — justifies its own existence — with an eye-opening moment. Ballard wins some giant stuffed animals at a
carnival, takes them home and treats them like friends, the way a child would
play with dolls  — until one day he
shoots them, convinced they’ve been talking behind his back. That moment crystallizes
his character as a truly pathetic creature who has the worst  of two worlds: he lives on animal instinct
yet  has the kind of mental delusions
only a human can suffer. He’s still a vile psychopath, but also a child of God.
And in McCarthy’s world, God is rarely benign, his children often destructive.

At times the film is too reverent toward its source. There’s
no need for text from the novel on screen, a stylistic tic of Franco’s. And the
voiceovers, from various unidentified townspeople, don’t work as they do in the
novel: as a Greek chorus, and also relief from Ballard’s perspective, a little
welcome breathing room. Here they’re simply functional, feeding us information.

But Franco and Jolivette did make one very smart change. The
crucial scene of Ballard shooting the stuffed animals was added, almost on the
fly. Franco explained this during an unusual press conference after the NY Film
Festival screening. He was meant to be Skyped in but something went wrong. What
we saw was a split screen: on the left, an empty chair and Jolivette’s name; on
the right, a big square of solid blue and Franco’s disembodied voice. Franco
the performance artist couldn’t have planned it better.

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