A freewheeling yet writerly style and a fully committed lead performance distinguish Child of God, prolific actor-author-director James Franco’s latest literary adaptation. Even when the movie works, however, it’s hard to see past the lurid details of the Tennessee tale, adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 exercise in backwoods noir.
Introduced while violently objecting to the auction of his family’s foreclosed homestead, Lester Ballard is unsocialized and likely deranged. One of the movie’s five narrators — neighbors whose deadpan voiceover observations are not necessarily reliable — calls him “a child of God much like yourself perhaps.” The characterization is ironic, yet its full bitterness won’t register until later.
Lester is played by Scott Haze, who attended acting school with Franco. His performance is suitably frenzied, strange and disturbing. Haze delivers his lines with a near-impenetrable mushmouth, swallowing his words as he expels spittle and snot. Lester spends much of his time alone in the woods, and his vocabulary includes animal-like grunts, growls and moans. These are frequently accompanied by the chatter of banjos and the wails of fiddles.
Abandoned while young by his mother and then his father, Lester grew up to have many survival skills but few social ones. He’s a crack rifleman whose his child-like nature is shown when he wins three massive stuffed animals in a sideshow shooting game. The tiger and two bears become Lester’s family until — in a harrowing scene added to McCarthy’s story by Franco and co-scripter Vince Jolivette — he turns on them.
Lester soon finds an even more beguiling toy: the body of a pretty young woman, dead in a car from apparent carbon-monoxide poisoning. Fascinated, the loner experiments with the corpse, and finally decides to take it home to his cabin as a companion. (It’s winter, so decomposition is not an immediate concern.) He even buys her a new dress.
When circumstance separates Lester from the prized cadaver, he goes looking for a new one. If he can’t find a dead woman, he can always transform a live one into a corpse. At this point, the film shifts from homage to Faulkner — two of whose novels Franco has adapted for the screen — to more conventional serial-killer shtick. McCarthy’s novel was partly inspired by Ed Gein, whose crimes have been fictionalized many times, notably in Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs.
Franco begins the film by declaring its literariness, with lots of text on the screen. The wordiness is contrasted by cinematographer Christina Voros’ handheld shakycam, whose widescreen images are often oddly framed and sometimes out of focus.
Both of these tics calm down as the movie progresses, as if the director recognized that such off-kilter gimmicks shouldn’t — or couldn’t — compete with Haze’s crazed performance. Indeed, some of the best scenes come when Lester faces the hard-nosed but judicious local sheriff, played with downhome solemnity by Tim Blake Nelson. (The only other actor of note is Franco himself, in a perfunctory cameo as a member of a lynch mob.)
One recurring visual motif is to frame Lester so he appears as a prisoner, whether in caves, a chicken coop or an actual jail cell. And so the movie creates a sense of elation in its climactic scene, when its antihero claws his way to freedom, however temporary. It’s a rare moment of possible empathy with Lester, whose fundamental repulsiveness is a problem A Child of God can’t finesse.