James Franco, the eager but uneven Renaissance man, has spewed his nonactorly creative juices again. In Child of God, it’s quickly apparent that the director and co-writer—wait, make that “acclaimed filmmaker,” as the film’s studio synopsis describes him—has thrown everything at the celluloid to see what sticks.
But unless he tones down his style, it won’t be a future as a director. In this meandering drama, Franco’s general offense is that common freshman mistake: trying too hard.
A fiddlin’, banjoin’ score sets the tone for the story of a nearly feral man in 1960s Tennessee. When the film opens, Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) is in a barn, fuming as he watches the auction of his family home through the slats. He runs out with a rifle, yelling at everyone to, essentially, get off his lawn. He’s knocked to the ground, where he writhes and screams some more as the title fills the screen.
During these initial few minutes, Franco might as well be Paul Greengrass. His camera moves with chaotic, nauseating jerks more commonly found in low-budget action movies. The cumulative effect is melodramatic, and when Franco films Lester defecating—Baby Ruth and all—while he’s on the run, it’s clear he isn’t going for subtlety. Look how wild Lester is! Got it.
Child of God boils down to watching Lester figure out how to survive when he becomes homeless. The scenes are often short and unnecessarily dissected by black screens. He’s supposed to become more depraved as the film progresses, but he didn’t exactly start out as an upstanding citizen to begin with. A major plot point is telegraphed the moment it’s set up, whereas an even more significant part of the story isn’t hinted at in the slightest, and it feels tacked on. The ending is left open, with no clues as to what Franco’s tried to accomplish.
Franco pushes Haze to maximum craziness in his role, too. He’s often posed with his chin toward his neck while his eyes look up, which doesn’t seem natural for even the most disturbed person to do. Throughout the film, Lester either mutters or bellows; it’s difficult to understand him either way. Yet for all his raw, living-off-the-landness, Lester has amazingly straight, white teeth. He also says at one point, “That’s for me to know, and for you to find out.” I may be wrong, but I doubt that colloquialism was used by hillbillies in the ’60s. Franco and previous collaborator Vince Jolivette adapted Child of God from the Cormac McCarthy novel, but they can’t be blamed for this slip; the anachronism is in the source material. (If you’ve seen McCarthy’s attempt at screenwriting, 2013’s The Counselor, you’ll know that the author might be an icon, but he isn’t infallible.) It’s more the stuff of Roger Corman than the Coen brothers.
The film is divided into three chapters, which chafes against its inarguably episodic nature, as if Franco and Jolivette had kept close Screenwriting for Dummies during the scripting process. There’s some voiceover with different, unidentified narrators for each piece. Had this approach been fine-tuned (by showing the characters before they speak, à la Bernie, for example), it would have been a clever touch, telling Lester’s story from the townfolks’ perspective instead of the omniscient narrator’s. As it is, however, each voiceover is just puzzling.
Some other details that can’t be pinned as either mistakes or intentional (if misguided) decisions: a color palette that alternates between sorta muted, very muted, and not muted at all, and a lack of any consistent sense of time. Lester is repeatedly threatened by the sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) and even charged with assault and rape, yet it seems like he’s released from jail after one night. If it’s true that “these people here in town won’t put up with your shit,” as the sheriff says, you’ve got to wonder why nobody’s killed the bastard already—which makes those “we’ll get you” encounters between Lester and the authorities something less than tense.
As Child of God goes on—and on and on—the filmmaking becomes less flashy, as if Franco gave up and let a more old-school director take over. In the future, that choice wouldn’t be unwise.