To be certain, James Franco has never been lacking in ambition. From the meta quasi-doc “Francophrenia (Or Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is)” to the Hart Crane biopic “The Broken Tower” to the kinky “Interior. Leather Bar.” to the primate co-starring “The Ape,” Franco has leapt into filmmaking, taking on challenges and narrative most other filmmakers wouldn’t dare to attempt. And while there is something to admire in the ambition of the 35 year-old actor/writer/director’s latest venture, “As I Lay Dying,” it never amounts to much more than a curiosity.
Requiring a decent knowledge of the source material (or at least a quick skim of the Wikipedia page) to fully grasp, Franco’s film almost plays out as William Faulkner‘s “Oregon Trail.” The basic premise is pretty straightforward: following the death of matriarch Addie, the Bundren family head to Jefferson, Mississippi to lay her to rest. Along the way, we’ll see various family secrets and more come to the surface. But the journey isn’t easy: an unwanted pregnancy, a broken leg, a raging river and more will provide obstacles to the Bundrens, who will deal with the past so they can move on to their uncertain future.
To be fair to Franco, the source material — featuring 15 different characters narrating 59 chapters — isn’t the easiest to make cinematic, so kudos to him for employing split screen for a good portion of the running time to add some visual pizzazz to his tale. Utilizing different camera angles, and allowing viewers to see reactions from different family members to the same event or to show two different sequences simultaneously, Franco employs the technique without it ever feeling like a gimmick. This certainly helps in evoking a literary feel to the film, though it’s just too bad the actual narrative is never as compelling as its visual counterpoint.
For all of the respect Franco clearly has for the source material, “As I Lay Dying” simply doesn’t have much of an actual story to tell. The Bundrens are clearly a troubled brood, but what further insight there is to be gleaned from the film remains obtuse. Their quest is the main thrust of any momentum the movie has, and yet it often feels like the picture is spinning its cart wheels. Not much really “happens” in the movie, until the third act, and if we’re supposed to get any deeper meaning from the various voice-overs, which serve up plenty of Faulkner’s poetic wordplay, that went completely over our head.
While the cast tackles the Southern setting with relish, they are often delivering the same single notes. Tim Blake Nelson chews on a Southern accent (with literally no teeth and rotting gums) that is often incomprehensible as Anse, the head of the clan; Jim Parrack mostly moans as Cash (and spends an absurd amount of time sawing the same piece of wood in the first section of the film); while Logan Marshall-Green is quietly stoic as the bastard Jewel. Perhaps the lone standout is Ahna O’Reilly as the fresh-faced Dewey Dell, who is on a rather heartbreaking mission to get an abortion. With Franco putting himself in the role of Darl, the “main” character, his accent comes and goes, and his third act histrionics due to a twist (sort of) are absurdly over the top, for what is an otherwise moodily measure picture.
Ultimately, “As I Lay Dying” is another Franco lark that is more of an experiment with form than a fully realized movie. One almost gets the sense that Franco is working out ideas with “As I Lay Dying,” with the goal of creating a cohesive film as a secondary ambition to simply capturing the feel of Faulkner’s prose. Perhaps there is something noble in that endeavor, and we’re always intrigued to see what happens when talent with access to do whatever they want try their hand at the unconventional. If anything, the film confirms that Franco does have the skills to create cinematic art, but he’ll have to get out of his own way first to do it. [C]