Child of God Movie Review
Written by Hamzah Sarwar
DVD released by Signature Entertainment
Directed by James Franco
Written by James Franco and Vince Jolivette from a novel by Cormac McCarthy
2013, 104 minutes, Rated 18 (UK)
DVD released on 28th April 2014
James Franco as Jerry
Tim Blake Nelson as Sheriff Fate
Jim Parrack as Deputy Cotton
Scott Haze as Lester Ballard
Jeremy Ambler as Boy With The Rifle
Fallon Goodson as Girly
The multi-skilled and prodigiously talented James Franco has proven himself to be a masterful artist over the years. The American's filmography is tenaciously eclectic and deservedly decorated. From playing James Dean back in 2001 through to his Oscar nominated turn in the brilliant 127 hours; Franco's acting ability is undeniable. It is his brave directorial exploits that have proved somewhat ponderous to date; Franco rose to prominence with the beautifully shot yet overbearingly grim adaptation of William Faulkner's classic 1930 novel As I lay Dying. Narrated by fifteen characters across fifty nine chapters, a mere attempt to transmute Faulkner's complex non-linear narrative into a cohesive cinematic experience speaks volumes of the filmmaker's self-belief.
Franco's latest offering, Child of God, delves into the Southern Gothic and into one of the earliest works of one of America's most treasured novelists, Cormac McCarthy. The Rhode Islander's novels have a long standing history of cinematic adaptations, notably in the form of the award winning Western No Country for Old Men (2007) and post-apocalyptic The Road (2009). Child of God translates as an entirely antithetic and savage beast. Set in the sparse and mountainous Tennessee; we follow the iterative mental, psychological and disturbingly sexual degradation of the violent Lester Ballard (Scott Haze). Franco, true to the source material, showcases events in three distinctive segments. In the first, we witness Ballard's ousting by the local community as his land is auctioned from his grasp. From then on as each section fades, so does Ballard's physicality and mental state. He spirals into a devastatingly grim world of necrophilia and murder, his appearance begins to resemble that of an ape; a wounded cave dweller, he staggers across the crisply shot barren landscape while his slurring speech borders on inaudible. As he howls to the heavens, there is a reverse evolutionary trend occurring. Man transforming into his archaic and animalistic form.
Ballard exists as an outlaw to society but more importantly unto himself. He is a wandering wastrel in an island of lost souls. Remarkably, despite the barbaric depravity that unfolds on screen, there is an underlying humanity in even the darkest recesses of Ballard's actions, Franco (to his immense credit) shines a flickering light that partially illuminates the jet black expanse of vulgarity. The protagonist is both figuratively and literally in isolation, given ample solo screen time, Scott Haze's startling turn is nothing short of sensational. He embodies the tragic figure, at times he is utterly repulsive, and in others he draws a strange brand of sympathy.
Prepare to be repulsed by the surprisingly gritty illustration of necrophilia. Ballard has no societal links other than his frequent encounters with the local sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson). He is outcast at the outset of the film by the local community who auction his land; it is as though this very event banishes the hope of Ballard's social reintegration. He even befriends two plush toys which he wins at a carnival to keep him company. Look out for the standout scene in which Ballard feels as though his lifeless sidekicks have betrayed him and takes to extracting his revenge. Clearly desperate for human closeness, the lone ranger abducts a series of dead women. Both physically abusing and caring for them as if desperate to rekindle a glimmer of his former self. The eventual revelation hammers home his demise; his feral insanity inevitably defeating him.
Although Franco has crafted a finely polished adaptation that is underpinned by a tremendous performance, there is no shying away from the fact that Child of God is immeasurably bleak and demands a great deal of patience. It is a film to experience rather than necessarily enjoy. The lack of Ballard's backstory to explain his madness will frustrate some but it is important to remember that this is about the how rather than the why. The underlying religious connotations are powerful, regardless of our actions; we are all children of God and can seek repentance. You will be left wondering if there may be an exception made in the case of Lester Ballard.