Some of the bleakest films in recent memory have been based on books by Cormac McCarthy. The Road almost felt like an exercise in hopelessness. No Country for Old Men had a sense of inevitable futility. Respectively directed by John Hillcoat and the Coen Brothers the films captured McCarthy’s dark sensibility via cinema. Now comes the media factotum James Franco to take on McCarthy and one of his earlier novels: Child of God, which is not only told from the demented perspective of a serial killer who has sexual relations with corpses but does not forget those who failed to stop him. Whatever you might think of this actor/director/author/poet who seems to spread himself kind of thin, there is no lack of quality direction invested in his adaptation. It follows Lester Ballard, a man abandoned by his family, community and humanity as a whole. What becomes of such a person is disturbing in its implications of society, and that Franco pulls off channeling that from the book as well as he does — though not flawlessly — deserves praise.
Smartly constructed, Franco’s Child of God (like the book) unfolds across three distinct acts that subtly grow baser and more harrowing as the story unfolds. The film takes place in rural, mid-20th century Tennessee. It’s winter, and the trees are mostly stripped bare of their leaves. Actor Scott Haze puts himself into the titular character of Lester Ballard with a grandiose lack of inhibition. We meet him confronting a group of people and an auctioneer on what Ballard says is his rightful property. Rifle in hand, he yells bloody murder at those who show interest in the land and large house. The scene, as with much of the film, is presented via handheld camera. It establishes the movie’s raw tone early on. Furthering the film’s earthy quality, the extras and bit players come across as non-actors genuinely recoiling as this beast of a man in a scruffy beard spits angst and frustration in an almost unintelligible drawl.
Child of God would probably not be as watchable were it not for Haze’s go-for-broke performance. His version of Ballard recalls what Denis Lavant did with Mousier Merde, a remarkable monster who could hardly speak and ate bouquets of flowers after emerging from the sewer in two films by Leos Carax, a short film in the omnibus Tokyo! and his terrific feature Holy Motors. But Haze doesn’t get the cartoonish flourishes of living underground and devouring flowers. Ballard feels more realistically and frighteningly grounded in the primal.
What Child of God is more interested in exploring — if it’s not already apparent in the title — is the underlying, universal basis that everyone needs human connection. In one scene after another Ballard is denied genuine, vested sympathy by others on screen. Haze channels Ballard’s anguish with a visceral performance beyond his unkempt exterior and a nose prolific enough to produce large globules of mucus when he’s at his most desperate. His hangdog face and over-bite add to his character’s pitiable quality, but there’s also a conviction in his eyes and posture that never wavers throughout the movie.
Franco also uses cinematic flourishes that speak to his keen skills as a director. The perspective of this man is of course easily manipulated through cinema. It’s about editing and the decision of what to show of the narrative, but it is a film that “shows” in the best narrative sense. The banjo music by Aaron Embry brings Deliverance to mind and unknown narrators give background vignettes that allude to the ghost of the person Ballard once was, though they make him no less frightening. “He’d grown lean and bitter. Some say mad,” says a voice-over narrator as Ballard stalks the side of a road, his gun in plain view, yelling at cars. Oh, Ballard also defecates in the woods and scrapes between his butt cheeks with a stick (just one more element of Haze’s conviction to his character).
With a harsh, layered musical sting out of a horror movie, Franco turns to Part II of the film. The unseen narrators have dropped out at this point, reflecting the notion that what lies ahead will seem inconceivable to the civilized person. Eventually, Ballard stumbles across a pair of young lovers who have died in their car of carbon monoxide poisoning, and during an extended sequence that features him having his way with the corpse of the young woman, he finds love. Ballard is now cuddling up with the young woman’s body in an abandoned home, saying “it’s me and you.” Companionship at last. As noted, the film is only headed further down a grim path. The sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) who enters the film to the sound of bells is half on alert for Ballard. As the unkempt, homeless man is left to roam the woods, he eventually finds shelter in a cave. Ballard is mostly regarded as a nuisance… until his crimes are revealed.
This is a man presented with little human connection from the beginning of the film and alluded to as much by the mysterious narrator(s) who help flesh out Part I of the film. It’s an extreme and ultimate example of the dissolution of humanity, but it stays true to the McCarthy ethos. Yet, deep under the murder and necrophilia, Franco finds a way to keep the humanity of the film’s protagonist relatable while maintaining an objective sensibility that does not make his acts forgivable. The film only seems to jump too ambitiously toward the end, after Ballard seems to have come to terms with his impulses, giving him an alien quality that betrays the film’s ambitions… or maybe it’s making its point even more harshly.
It’s tough to say because Child of God demands a lot from the audience that dares to seek out truly adventurous filmmaking. Far from a feel good film yet not deserving of the label of exploitation, Child of God aspires for a kind of enlightenment via the shadows that should not be ignored. As with much of Franco’s work, it’s the fact that he dares to explore certain themes that does not always make him easily palatable but no less worth shrugging off as irrelevant. He’s not. Of course there is no excusing Ballard’s crimes, but the film speaks to the need of sympathy for such people. It’s a cautionary tale that supposes psychosis as a social problem and not all psychological. A lack of moral guidance can happen from the outside as well as from within. The film dares to indict society and the onlooker as much as its protagonist. No one is innocent of horrors because, let’s face it, stuff like this can happen.
Child of God runs 104 minutes and earns its R rating. It opens exclusively in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, Sept. 15, which provided a screener link for the purpose of this review. On Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m., actor Scott Haze will join “Variety” film critic Justin Chang and “Hudak On Hollywood” film critic Andres Solar for the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss this film. A meet-and-greet party at the Sagamore Hotel ends the night. Tickets for each screening and the event can be found by visiting mbcinema.com.