If you're looking for a bright and breezy getaway this weekend, enjoying - or indeed enduring - James Franco's Child of God will be far from your thoughts. Child of God is an American drama co-written and directed by Franco, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy and starring Scott Haze. It was selected to be screened at the 70th Venice International Film Festival and was also an official selection of the 2013 Toronto Film Festival.
It's a hard sell, based on the third novel by Cormac, which was first published in 1973. Child of God depicts the life of a violent outcast - played with astonishing realism by Haze - in 1960s Tennessee. Lester Ballard, described by the author as "a child of God much like yourself perhaps", is one seriously disturbed individual. This being the 60s however, he is allowed to exist outside of social order. Ballard lives in the woods and spends most of his time alone. Socially inept and (arguably) mentally challenged, contact with the real world comes only when he antagonises the local community, brandishing firearms and threatening their livelihoods.
The novel is split into three segments, so too is Franco's film. It's a depressing journey, but then, who in their right mind goes into a film about necrophilia expecting hugs and puppies? As the film progresses Lester becomes more and more detached, living in caves, making friends with stuffed toys, murdering locals and having sex with their corpses. The camera rarely leaves his side, so it's a good job Haze is up to the task. He's truly outstanding here, painstakingly so. In fact, you could also argue that, at times, his performance is too extreme. There's only so much bodily fluid I can take in one sitting. I should rephrase that.
Much has been made of Franco's involvement, but Child of God should be judged on its own merits. There might be truth in the notion that this adaptation would've fared better had the director not been Franco. He has been - particularly in the American press - an easy target of late. He recently took part in a televised comedy roast, and it's all too easy to knock an 'artist' for having less fingers than pies, but in truth, Child of God is a competent adaptation of some very bleak source material.
This was never going to be easy, and yes, most of the recognition should go to Haze not Franco, but Franco's solid if unspectacular direction shouldn't go unnoticed either. Besides Haze, performances are a little bit hit and miss, and Franco's script doesn't allow for any significant character development, but the County sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) and his deputy (Jim Parrack) standout from an otherwise lukewarm crowd. Franco even pops up at the end, but his appearance is an unnecessary indulgence, which threatens to loosen the film's grip.
Child of God offers no redemption, no silver lining and precious little compassion, alienating casual viewers and frustrating audiences when things get too pedestrian. It's too one-note at times, and were it not for Haze's demented turn, I too would have joined the passing crowd.