In 'Child of God', the Evil is Banal

by Brice Ezell

3 November 2014

James Franco's attempt to adapt Cormac McCarthy's novel Child of God for the screen confuses merely depicting horrendous evil with saying something interesting about it.
 
cover art

Child of God

Director: James Franco
Cast: Scott Haze, Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Jim Parrack

US DVD: 28 Oct 2014

You know how you always hear George Clooney and other big movie stars saying, “My philosophy for making movies is: one for them and one for me.” But not my guy James. James is a rebel. He has his own philosophy on this: one for them, five for nobody.
—Jonah Hill, at The Comedy Central Roast of James Franco

If we’re to believe what we’re told at the beginning of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Child of God, which we’re also told in a voiceover narration in James Franco’s film adaptation of the novel, Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) is “a child of God much like yourself, perhaps.” Not long into the movie, however, we’re already being tested in our ability to give Ballard that name. Over the course of Franco’s 104 minute long film, we watch as Ballard shoots at innocent people, yells profanely at random strangers and, most disturbingly at all, has sexual intercourse with two female cadavers.

The plot consists of nothing more than watching him fall from all social mores. Right from the beginning, we’re given no reason to sympathize with Ballard, which makes watching his precipitous descent into depravity all the more difficult.

Of course, the quotation at the beginning of the film (and the novel) has already tipped the story’s hand with regards to the purpose of this tale. Like Ballard, so the “child of God much like yourself” logic goes, it would be easy for any one of us to slip and fall into immorality and learn to live on the fringes of society. The same evil that motivates Ballard to live as necrophiliac nomad rests in all of us.

This message is one that is certainly not lost on Franco, himself a scholar of cinema and literature. More on that in just a moment. So while finding any reason to care for Ballard as he commits his litany of crimes is near impossible, ostensibly that’s not the point. Child of God holds up a mirror to the audience, saying, “This could be you, depending on the circumstances.”

The only instance in Franco’s adaptation where this reading is plausible, however, is in its opening moments, when the line is said. Franco, committed to an orthodox interpretation of McCarthy’s novel, tries to hang the quotation like a specter over the entirety of the film, to remind everyone that Ballard isn’t just a run-of-the-mill psychopath roaming the hills of Tennessee. Pushed a certain way, we could end up just like him.

Unfortunately for Franco, Child of God plays less like a film that is open to multiple readings and instead more like a film that desperately begs you to read into it. Paradoxically, in trying to stay true to McCarthy’s austere, at times cold prose, which works tremendously on the page, he renders his film lifeless, a mere depiction of one man gone very, very bad without any real insights as to what his downfall signifies. Child of God is a film that confuses depicting horrendous evil with saying something interesting about it.

This in large part isn’t the fault of the actors who, save for Haze, aren’t really given much to work with. Tim Blake Nelson turns in a serviceable but otherwise unmemorable performance as Ballard’s hunter, Sherrif Faze, a fate shared by Jim Parrack’s role as Deputy Cotton. Franco himself pops in as a man called Jerry, who tries to kill Ballard in the film’s final moments. This role doesn’t require a lot of him, and it’s easy to tell for the few minutes he’s on screen.

The problem, rather, rests in Franco’s directorial vision, and to a lesser extent his writing of the script (a duty he shared with Vince Jolivette). Wanting to stay true to the spirit of an author’s work, particularly an author with the repute of McCarthy, is not on its own an ignoble goal. Even the ever-eccentric Coen Brothers gave the stunning No Country for Old Men a faithful envisioning. In the case of Child of God, though, a straightforward take on McCarthy feels more like Franco trying to shield himself from taking any risks instead of trying to do orthodox page-to-screen interpretation.

Franco’s major directorial efforts, including Child of God, have all been adaptations of canonical literary figures. Most notably, he adapted two of William Faulkner’s novels: As I Lay Dying (2013) and The Sound and the Fury (2014). For someone who is still cutting his teeth as a director, undergoing such major goals, could easily turn from being a brave move to being a cavalier one. This holds true particularly in the case of Faulkner, who many would not unreasonably argue is simply unadaptable for the cinema. (Plus, considering that Franco’s most memorable acting role up to this point is as a dredlock-sporting, gun-obsessed Florida psycho Alien in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, it’s not unreasonable to posit he might be getting ahead of himself).

Child of God, although a sparse film in its writing and construction, nonetheless plays out like Franco biting off more than he can chew. The plot he’s given to work with is simple, but deceptively so. It’s not enough to just depict Ballard as he grows increasingly estranged from society and indeed morality as a whole, but sadly that’s all we’re given. This tactic is similar to the kind deployed by Bret Easton Ellis at his worst: yes, if one throws enough depictions of immoral acts at an audience, eventually it will react.

Nevertheless, there has to be some investment on the part of the audience in the story at hand; otherwise the movie will amount to nothing more than almost two hours of depravity without any meaningful exploration of what that depravity signifies. Ballard’s fall from whatever grace he might have had at the film’s beginning feels like nothing more than a fall, and there’s little reason to feel like Franco’s directorial hand reveals anything insightful about Ballard, or the human condition more generally.

One can at least grant that Franco tried to imbue significance into this spartan film. As he told the The Daily Beast:

In Child of God, he basically goes on a date with one of these [dead] bodies, and the motions that he goes through aren’t any different from any romantic comedy, but he’s animating both sides of the relationship with his imagination. To me, that’s fascinating, and it’s a way to do what movies should do—talk about the human condition.

Trying, however, is not enough. Franco is still young into his film career, and especially young into his career as a director; missteps are to be expected. But as Franco’s insanely fast track to his PhD at Yale attests (which includes getting BA in English at UCLA in a meager two years), he’s a man with a lion’s share of ambition that’s unable to bring his tentacular goals to fruition.

In James Franco, we’re talking about a man who wants to open art galleries, star in films, direct films, write poetry and fiction, and teach classes at major universities simultaneously. The problematic rhetoric of “having it all” ought not be applied to the feminist movement, but instead to Franco who, as his filmography reveals, is the textbook example of a person whose eyes are bigger than his stomach. What Child of God specifically indicates is that even if an overambitious auteur has the best of intentions, he can still end up with an utterly banal film on his hands.

The only extra included on the Blu-ray is a trailer.

Child of God

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