James Franco moves behind the camera as he adapts Cormac McCarthy’s novel, “Child of God”, for the big screen. Franco noted in the Q & A that McCarthy is one of his favourite novelists, and felt pressure to be sure he was doing McCarthy’s work justice. It was a quick shoot with a relative unknown, Scott Haze, as the lead character Lester Ballard. With such great source material, it seems that Franco took on something that could never be bad.
“Child of God” follows Lester Ballard, a man without friends or family who removes himself further from society after his property is repossessed and sold. His violence becomes greater as he delves further into more and more degrading behaviours. Ballard is a lonely man, a man pushed to extremes, not from his own doing. His society seems to just outright reject him. His nonchalant attitude about his father’s death makes it seem like his father was not a man that deserved to be mourned, perhaps he was a violent outcast too. It is unclear in the story whether Lester Ballard is an outcast because he is strange, or he is strange because he has been made to be an outcast.
An Odd Sense of Sympathy
“Child of God” is a superb piece of literature that focuses on small-town American south. Ballard is a man who is dirty, who talks a little funny, and has no social etiquette. While the character is not someone anyone can identify with (hopefully), his loneliness is. There are times when I actually felt a little bit sorry for Ballard. It was weird feeling even the slightest bit of sympathy for someone who commits such despicable acts (such as necrophilia) as he does. The sympathy was brief due to his horrific behaviour, but the fact that Franco and Haze were able to bring that out at all is a true testament to the understanding they had of their source material.
Haze lived in isolation for 3 months to prepare Lester Ballard
Scott Haze is someone who definitely has a bright career ahead of him. His characterization of Lester Ballard is disturbing, terrifying, and so authentic that you could’ve sworn Franco just found some dirty homeless guy and put him in the movie (which doesn’t sound like something he wouldn’t do). The only thing that distracted me was the way he talked. Ballard is a man in serious need of dental work, while Haze is not, so obviously some sort of fake dentistry went into Haze’s transformation. But with this came a sort of sloppy sound that emanated when he talked. A sound similar to when you wear plastic vampire fangs on Hallowe’en and you can’t quite enunciate properly. I wasn’t sure if Haze was just trying his best to talk around this costuming obstacle, or Ballard was initially meant to have a kind of slurry lisp.
Franco is well known for, well, being James Franco. There are so many “versions” of him out there- such as stoner comedian, film student, English major, serious actor- that ‘director’ seems like the next logical career move. While he has hands dipped in pretty much every artistic pool, he doesn’t do anything haphazardly. His direction is careful, plotted, and meaningful. He captured the tone and the characters perfectly. His decision to include written excerpts from the novel on screen attests to his adoration of McCarthy. And the decision to include the different voices of narrators to talk about Ballard, only makes Lester Ballard’s existence even more removed from the rest of society. This makes him more myth than man, someone who stays on the outside.
“Child of God” is a low-key tale of a seriously disturbed man. It’s not packed to the brim with horror or action, it’s quieter. Ballard walks through the forest quite a lot, and after awhile, following him along as he walked felt like dead space. But other than that slight pacing issue, the movie comes in at a neat 104 minutes. It’s as good an adaptation as I could imagine. The direction and performances were great, and the source material is obviously fantastic. A large chunk of the reason this movie ended up being a good adaptation is because Franco stayed true to the book. He listened to the sage advice, “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” and it certainly paid off.