Before there was David Foster Wallace, before Thomas Pynchon baffled and as James Joyce infuriated, there was William Faulkner. A Nobel Laureate of immeasurable talents and insufferable mannerisms, his novels are among some of the most complex and complained over “classics” in all of literature. Don’t think so? Just ask a third year college student what he or she thinks of Absalom, Absalom or Sancturay and you’ll quickly understand. With his reliance on stream of conscience as well as conflicting character narration and point of view, his books are dense, deliberate, and undeniably powerful. You just have to get yourself through them in order to achieve their full effect (similar things could be said about Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Finnegan’s Wake).
The same also applied to James Franco’s daring adaptation of one of Faulkner’s ‘best,’ As I Lay Dying. Known for its 15 different characters, 59 chapters, and sometimes indecipherable storyline, it’s clear that the actor’s well known ambitions are on full display here. Whether it’s acting in mainstream and indie fare, working on his PhD, writing scripts and short stories, and more or less copping to the title of King of All Meta Media, everything Franco does is about Franco. It’s about what Franco thinks and what Franco feels. It’s also about how Franco approaches his various projects and what Franco believes is important within each one. Heck, he’s one of the few famous people who can turn a scatological roast into a real life living performance art piece.
For Dying, Franco deconstructs Faulkner’s interlocking narrative to deliver a standard story arc. We are introduced to the matriarch of the Bundren family, Addie (Beth Grant) as she is on her sick bed. She is dying, and while friends and well wishers come around to say their goodbyes, her son Cash (Jim Parrack) busily prepares her coffin. After death, her husband Anse (Tim Blake Nelson) gathers around the rest of the brood – sons Darl (James Franco), Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green) and Vardaman (Brady Permenter) and daughter Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly) and prepares to honor Addie’s last wish – to be buried far away in Jefferson, Missouri. Setting off on the perilous journey, they eventually run into a serious flood and the tragic aftermath of same. They also labor under additional hardships, causing the various members of the Bundren clan to contemplate their own place on the planet.
Although he often comes across as an arthouse showoff (or worse, indie wannabe), James Franco is technically a humanist at heart. He wallows in the excesses and eccentricities of individuals while coming across as disconnected and above it all. With As I Lay Dying, he makes the wise choice to focus on the characters over the circumstances, believing (rightfully so) that this is the way Faulkner would have wanted it. Since the novel is so overwrought with technique and obtuseness, there is simply no better way to get to the heart of its message. As with all Southern Gothic bathed in this specific author’s Bourbon and bilious contempt, the plot is just a path toward internalized enlightenment. Getting Addie’s body to Jefferson becomes secondary to what the rest of her family are learning and experiencing.
So, in essence, As I Lay Dying is a character study and as a director, Franco crafts same with a combination of finesse and an unflinching eye. There are moments when you will have to turn away in horror and times when you wonder just what we are supposed to make of the use of split screen. This is a laid back, laconic effort, but as he has proven time and time again, Franco doesn’t want to take the easy road. He’s not out to follow trends but set (or destroy) them. Perhaps that’s why his choices of cinematic subject matter – deleted footage from William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 thriller Cruising, Cormac McCarthy’s brutal novel Child of God – belie his main creative bent. Clearly, he likes to take risks. In addition, he’s not worried if the choices he makes mean anything to the mainstream. His career has given him these opportunities and he is bound and determined to make the most of them.
Luckily, he finds a cast who can compete with his lofty aims. As Addie, Beth Grant makes the most of her limited screen time, while Danny McBride does the same with what amounts to an extended cameo. Of the sons, Franco and Jim Parrack have the best overall arc, even if it requires a bit of nauseating bloodletting to get through them. Perhaps the real standout is Tim Blake Nelson as Anse. Lost in his bumpkin persona and fiery in this clueless determination, it is within this performance that we see the real reason behind Addie’s request. In some ways, he wants to have her remaining family go on a Pilgrim’s Progress, a series of struggles (in this case, via a burial journey) so that they can better understand themselves and each other. In addition, they can also suffer as she did. Of course, in Faulkner’s (and Franco’s) hands, such self discovery can be damaging.
In fact, As I Lay Dying may be the only movie ever made by a likeable A-list actor where likeability finds no purchase. Franco isn’t concerned with heroes and villains as much as humility and vice. As the family arrives in Jefferson, rotting corpse announcing their intentions (and soon established social place as pariahs), the film explodes in a dozen different directions, each one intriguing in its own way. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to argue that Franco does Faulkner’s legacy a legitimate disservice. For generations, critics have complained that the prize winning writer crafted work specifically aimed as avoiding cinematic interpretation. However, in the case of James Franco and As I Lay Dying, by using the characters as a keystone to deciphering Faulkner’s fractured puzzle box, he ends up discovering the telling treasures within.