NYFF Review: Child of God


Allow me to state my bias upfront. While I like James Franco as an actor, I’m not a fan of his work as a would-be Renaissance Man/Jack of all trades. His fiction is pretty mediocre and the stuff I saw about his art installation underwhelmed. It’s fair to say that neither of these projects would have come about if it weren’t for Franco’s celebrity status, but at least he seems like a well-meaning dilettante.

Child of God is the first Franco-directed film that I’ve seen. It’s an adaptation of one of Cormac McCarthy’s most brutally dark novels. I can at least give Franco credit for tackling some ambitious material; his other film on the festival circuit this year is an adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Ambition isn’t enough to make something good, however. Child of God, for instance, feels cheap, quick, and haphazard. Just picture an early John Waters movie, but without the charm.

[For the next few weeks, we’ll be covering the 2013 New York Film Festival, now in its 51st year. Flixist will provide you with reviews, video, news, and features on some of the best films on the festival circuit. To check out all of our coverage of NYFF51, click here.]

Trailer: Child of God (NYFF51)

Child of God
Director: James Franco
Rating: TBD
Release Date: TBD

There’s something fundamentally inartful about the execution of Child of God, and I think it comes down to the direction more than the performances. Scott Haze plays the film’s main character, Lester Ballard, a barely articulate manchild who lives on the outskirts of society in a ramshackle cabin in the woods. He spends his days hunting and talking to himself in a mostly unintelligible blur of language. It’s part twangy schizophrenia, part Boomhauer from King of the Hill. While in the deepest throes of isolation, Lester resorts to necrophilia. We get to watch him madly hump away at a corpse like he’s in a farce about dogs in heat. These sequences are sure to cause walkouts. Most people will leave because necrophilia is one of the grossest of the gross taboos, though they should really leave because the movie is poorly made.

I’m no connoisseur of necrophilia in the media, but Child of God reminded me of a few things that explored necrophilia better. There’s a pair of notorious German horror films by Jörg Buttgereit called Nekromantik and Nekromantik 2. (I’ve only seen the first one and just clips of the second one. One’s fine, thanks.) There are also some articles on necrophiliacs in Apocalypse Culture and Apocalypse Culture II, those two cult classic non-fiction books edited by Adam Parfrey. Whether it’s the Buttgereit films or the testimony of Karen Greenlee, there’s more going on in the heads of the necrophiles than just wanting to get off, and one of the issues with Child of God is the amount of psychological and emotional distance we have from Lester as a character.

Lester may not be able to articulate any great profundities about life, but he’s always processing the world in his head. Since he dominates the narrative, it’d make sense that some of his point of view or some insight into his point of view might seep into the film. That’s not really the case. So much of Child of God plays out as if we’re simply observing Lester rather than inhabiting a sympathetic mental and emotional space. Given, this is a difficult worldview to imagine, and it may be even more difficult to portray on screen than it is on the page, but I’m surprised how detached the film feels from Lester when it also seems like Franco is trying to find a deeper connection to him.

This all comes down to Franco’s inexperience as a director. Not only is this difficult, dark, challenging material to wrestle with, but it’s also set in a backwater town in the 1960s. Sadly, the recreation of the era is ineffective. So much of the movie has the gloss of a contemporary world playing dress up. The actors drive vintage cars and they wear period costumes but they never feel like they’re actually from the 1960s. Very little about Child of God feels lived-in. The entire look of the film is pretty ho-hum as well, sort of like a made-for-TV movie that was rushed. This is really the sort of material that should be labored over.

Ultimately, Child of God is the film of a tyro. What it really needs is a masterful director who can translate McCarthy’s beautiful language about grotesquerie into beautiful images of grotesquerie. There needs to the be this tension to create sympathy for Lester and the universal plight of the isolated at the fringe, no matter how repellent it gets. This is ugly, but the writing is so compelling that I can’t stop reading; this is ugly, but the imagery is so compelling that I can’t look away. This is a collision of opposites as a means toward recognition. There’s almost no poetic grotesquerie in the film version of Child of God. Instead, we get Lester ejaculating onto the side of a car, as if Franco just stomped on a tube of toothpaste just out of frame.

Rather than find a suitable visual equivalent for the language, Franco stumbles and tries to incorporate McCarthy’s text directly into the film. There’s voiceover briefly that’s then abandoned, and there’s text on the screen briefly that’s then abandoned. The film is at a loss for images that can substitute for words. It wants to say so much about the human condition but winds up saying very little.

During a press conference after the screening, Franco discussed the subtext of isolation and empathy for Lester as a character. The ideas he expressed were better articulated than they were executed in the film. While watching Child of God, I inferred the subtext he was going for, but it just didn’t feel like this was implied by the film. If the subtext remains buried beneath the rest of the execution, it winds up sounding like it’s a foreign idea or, worse, an afterthought intended to add significance where there’s none.

One of the first foul images in Child of God is of Lester bending over and taking a dump on camera. As far as I could tell, it really is Haze taking a dark, ugly crap right there in front of us. We then get to watch him clumsily wipe his ass with a stick. I’m sure some people will read this as an act of artistic transgression, an introduction into the primal earthiness of Lester’s world. In another film maybe I could get behind that idea, but sometimes a man taking a dump is just a man taking a dump. I mean, hell, it wasn’t even shot that well.

[Child of God will screen at the Walter Reade Theater on Sunday, September 29th and at the Francesca Beale Theater on Tuesday, October 1st. For tickets and more information, click here.]

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.