This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Venice Film Festival.
There is only so much matter in the universe. So at some point, simple physics dictates that James Franco must come to the end of the hitherto unending supply of goodwill that has been extended to him in recent years, unless he generates some more by making something that we can all agree is not just interesting, not just full of potential or ambition to be good, but actually, genuinely good. You know, anything — a book, a painting, a cheese whip commercial, an expressionist dance routine, even a movie — that his long suffering fans can point to and be vindicated by, at which point his detractors will only be able to look at their shoes and shuffle about shamefaced. “The Sound and The Fury” is not that movie.
Based on the extraordinary, complex Nobel Prize-winning William Faulkner novel of the same name, Franco’s 101-minute film version is immensely truncated, but somehow manages to feel self-indulgent nonetheless, particularly in the first of its three chapters, which is told from the point of view of the Compson family’s shame, the idiot Benjy. Starring Franco’s halfwit bucktooth dentures in the role, and also Franco himself we suppose, his Benjy roils, spasms, groans, gurns, and flails his way through an interminable first third, which is surely destined to be listed as the precise filmic definition of the “Tropic Thunder” meme of “going full retard.”
Taking an elliptical approach to the storytelling, clearly in hopes of evoking Faulkner’s own masterfully deconstructed, non-linear, stream-of-consciousness style in the book, what we really get is childlike, whispery, enigmatic voiceover (I don’t know how many times we had to hear, “She smelled like the trees,” but it was far too many), myriad shots of the childhood and grown versions of Benjy’s adored sister Caddy running in slo-mo, looking back over her shoulder through a curtain of strawberry blonde hair, and half-an-hour of Franco drooling onto a gate.
Chapter two fares a little better, though perhaps only because we were so relieved that the gate/slobber section was past. It follows the sensitive, intelligent brother of the once-great Compson family, Quentin (Jacob Loeb). To be honest, we’re relying on our memory of the book for most of the characterization because here, with the woozy camera work, the omnipresent ambient drones and ticks of the soundtrack, and the frequent cuts back to Tim Blake Nelson’s drunk old codger patriarch spouting incomprehensible homilies about time and virginity and what not, there’s just not a lot of room left for anything as uncool as actual character. Quentin’s tragic arc, from quasi-incestuous love and possessiveness over Caddy, to starchy miserable Harvard student, happens in the blink of an eye, so it’s hard to invest in it at all.
Thirdly, we get the Jason chapter, which is maybe the most straightforward (as it is in the book). The choleric, mean spirited brother, Jason (Scott Haze) is bitterly resentful of Caddy’s illegitimate daughter, Miss Quentin (Joey King), steals the money her mother sends her, and attempts unsuccessfully to police her increasing promiscuity. Throughout all these sections, we jump around in time seemingly at random, though in case you’re worried, this section, too, is largely free of turnstiles and dribble. However, Seth Rogen turns up as a telegraph operator who’s a Babe Ruth fan and Danny McBride does nice work with his single scene as a local lawman.
The rest of the cast are decent — the standout is Loretta Devine as the redoubtable servant Dilsey, while Nelson and Ahna O’Reilly, who plays Caddy, and at one point wears absolutely the ugliest hat we’ve ever seen, are more or less members of the Franco theatrical troupe by now, both having shown up in his last assay on Faulkner, “As I Lay Dying.” We weren’t exactly fans of that film either, but while “The Sound and the Fury” is probably a little more polished, it’s also less experimental and more familiar, so it’s hard to say whether it actually marks a step forward.
That’s perhaps the biggest disappointment of “The Sound and the Fury” — all of its inescapable ambient soundtrack (by Tim O’Keeffe), all of its cinematographic style (DP: Bruce Thierry Cheung) feels derivative, like we’ve seen it before, especially from neophyte filmmakers wanting to imbue their movie with some kind of aesthetic shorthand for “poetic.” With ‘Dying,’ Franco tried split screen, fractured images, and repeated bits of action, and while it didn’t work it at least showed bravery. In fact, if ‘Dying’‘s main issue was a surfeit of ideas, ’Sound’ feels like it suffers from a paucity.
Perhaps it’s time to reiterate our belief that Franco, when he’s not slavering over a fence, undoubtedly has talent in many arenas. But do we really believe he is such an unprecedentedly gifted polymath that he can create multiple projects simultaneously and turn in something truly great in any/all of them? For all his energy, like ‘Dying’ before it, “The Sound and the Fury” feels like it just didn’t have enough care taken over it, like Franco has mistaken his enthusiasm for Faulkner’s novel for time spent actually working out the best, most inventive way to bring it to the screen, and it’s a novel that deserves at least that respect. Of course, Franco probably has eight other things on the go at the moment (among them no fewer than three upcoming directorial features) which could account for why his “The Sound and the Fury” feels like maybe an eighth of a film. [C]