Child of God (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Child of God (2013)

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Something is wrong with Lester Ballard.  He drips with snot, leers at the occupants of parked cars, threatens his neighbors with his gun, and lives off the land in a way authorities detest.  No one has ever treated Lester like a human...but should they?  James Franco directs Child of God, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and stars Scott Haze.

Picture of sanityIn the last few years, James Franco has taken it upon himself to make movies of novels considered unfilmable for decades.  Franco has toyed with various kinds of art via cinema, avant-garde pop groups, teaching and the ongoing performance piece that is himself.  While he's been successful in each to varying degrees and turned public consensus away from him it has not always been for the best of reasons and I have been afraid to see what he's done with some of my favorite authors.

I haven't quite mustered up the will to see what his William Faulkner adaptations are like, so starting with his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Child of God seemed like a good first step.  Child of God is not a novel I get much out of, where McCarthy's greatest strength and weakness in delving into Southern Gothic is to see just how depraved he can make the material and keep going.  There's a larger point to the prose in directly asking the reader what humanity we should grant the deranged Lester Ballard as he slides into necrophilia and murder.  But that question is resolved by his first round of murder, and his subsequent trials doom him to a fate sealed after the first kill.  McCarthy's prose is far from unfilmable and some of the most disquieting sequences, Ballard's first sexual experience with a corpse being one of them, are told with such vivid economy that it's disturbingly easy to picture the deed.

Franco's adaptation of Child of God, for better or worse, is a great realization of McCarthy's novel.  Despite claims to the contrary, McCarthy's novels transition to cinema easily because his sparse and vivid descriptions do most of the heavy lifting of setting up a visual palette.  Using the novel as a jumping-off point and only making slight revisions, Franco goes headlong into the macabre elements of the text while making no apologies for the material.  It just ends as a double-edged sword since it hews so closely to the text and Child of God gradually dulls from a furious howl of the mistreated outcasts to a checklist of horrific events.

Brave performance

Scott Haze gives a strong and fearless performance as Lester Ballard.

Much of the credit for this transition belongs to Scott Haze, who does not shy away from the visceral humanity of Ballard.  Franco asks a lot of Haze and he obliges furiously while screaming at people to get off his land, masturbating vigorously to couples who don't know he's watching, letting his nose drip with large accumulations of snot, and defecating in the woods then wiping with a twig.  Haze keeps Ballard from being a sideshow freak by feverishly narrating all of his actions along with a mix of self-aware grunts.  This keeps Ballard from slipping too far into the realm of the animal while still making clear that he is not right in the head.

Haze even manages to inject Ballard with some warmth that comes rarely, but are among the best moments of the film.  His childlike wonder leads to some wonderful shots from Franco and cinematographer Christina Voros as Ballard's face is perfectly still while watching fireworks.  I also loved how he wins some stuffed animals and they are always positioned as watching over him or smiling along with his rare moments of joy.  It's in those moments that the debate Ballard represents over whether he is worthy of his humanity or not reaches a crucial division point and we wonder what he could have been like if not so thoroughly mistreated by everyone he knows.

When Child of God turns away from Lester the animal, it finds quiet beauty with Lester the man.

When Child of God turns away from Lester the animal, it finds quiet beauty with Lester the man.

But those elements of Haze's performance also carry the shards of why Child of God has some of the same shortcomings as the source material.  Examine the scene of Ballard defecating in the woods then wiping with a stick.  Franco and Voros film his anus just shy of the center of the screen, making sure that this act is the only focus of the shot.  The subject isn't the way Ballard defecates like an animal, which is in-line with the ongoing debate over Ballard's humanity and could be done in a different way, but the act of defecation itself.  Much like the novel the film becomes gradually more preoccupied with what Ballard is doing then framing it in a way that questions his character.

This is one of many scenes where Franco's devotion to the novel works against his cinematic adaptation.  Franco makes his admiration of the source material clear by sometimes plastering it onto the screen in blocks of text and separating the sections of the film with chapter marks.  It's poor cinema, deliberately telling when it should be showing, and stops some of the scenes cold.  Tim Blake Nelson's sheriff is introduced with text that is implied in the way he is shot emerging from a building.  This is a redundant move from Franco that adds nothing to the presentation.

Child of God still has other little pleasures - like the way Voros frames the outdoors as to show the wilderness disappearing into the sky or how innocuous leaves threaten Ballard with burial.  But they're not enough to salvage what is a too-reverential adaptation of an already repetitive text.  Based on Child of God I'm now less apprehensive about watching Franco's other literary adaptations.  I just hope that he focuses on good cinema first, and the adaptation second.

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Tail - Child of GodChild of God (2013)

Directed by James Franco.
Screenplay written by James Franco and Vince Jolivette.
Starring Scott Haze.

Posted by Andrew

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