Apart from the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” the work of Cormac McCarthy has fared poorly on the big screen, with Bill Bob Thornton’s adaptation of “All the Pretty Horses” and John Hillcoat’s of “The Road” both lamentable failures, and Ridley Scott’s version of McCarthy’s own screenplay for “The Counselor” even worse. In such company James Franco’s adaptation of McCarthy’s 1973 novella “Child of God” stakes out a middle position, neither as successful as the Coens’ film nor as wretched as the other three.
The book is as forbidding a source as Brett Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho” was; when paired with the title, it challenges the very notion that human life should be considered sacred. It focuses on Lester Ballard, a violent, mentally disturbed man living in a backwoods area of 1960s Tennessee. Thrown off the family homestead, Ballard, a crack shot, becomes a sort of reclusive scavenger, scouring the forest for game and sometimes stealing chickens from other locals’ coops. He’s also a voyeur who pleasures himself while watching couples screw in their cars, and finds another method of fulfilling his sexual needs when he comes upon a couple that’s been asphyxiated by the carbon dioxide from their exhaust pipe. Leaving the man’s body behind, he takes the woman’s back to the shed he’s holed out in to serve as a pampered partner that will never protest his advances. Unfortunately, the body is destroyed in a fire, and Lester repairs to a cave. This time he will have to resort to murder to get a new corpse to serve his needs, and eventually the eye of the local law—in the person of the sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson)—will fall on him. A mob soon appears in true southern style.
This is hardly a pleasant or uplifting story, but rather the portrait of a man who was hardly a specimen of civilized life to begin with sinking deeper and deeper into depravity. And yet, McCarthy suggests, Ballard is, like all men, a child of God—so how is he to be treated? Neither the book nor the film offers an easy answer; both are designed to force us to reach our own conclusions. It’s not a task many will relish.
Franco’s approach is clearly reverential to McCarthy’s novel. It’s divided into the same three sections announced on title cards, and occasionally snatches of the text are given in print, while others are read in voiceover. Franco also tries for a careful balance, attempting not to soften the depiction of Ballard’s enormities while also seeking not to repel the audience from the first. It’s a difficult juggling act, though: film, after all, is a very different medium from the page, and though what McCarthy can conjure a reader’s imagination to “see” may be horrifying, actually being confronted with the same scene visually is a more viscerally immediate proposition. So working with cinematographer Christina Voros, Franco has adopted a tone of heightened naturalism that embraces the grim beauty of the locale while presenting the action in hectic, mostly hand-held camerawork that suddenly slows and stabilizes for the more static scenes, especially the curiously tender ones of Ballard’s necrophilia. The use of a jaunty score for guitar and banjo by Aaron Embry adds to the unsettling mood, as do the shafts of dark humor in the tale.
Franco’s method results in an ambitious but uneven attempt to translate McCarthy’s book to the screen, but one element of the picture is entirely right: Scott Haze’s wild, ferocious performance as Ballard. On screen for nearly the entire running-time, Haze persuades you that he is the feral, snarling creature of the novel, but even when Ballard is at his most extreme, he also lends the character a touch of humanity that keeps you from labeling him an animal. It’s a fearless turn, and one that’s hard to turn away from even when one might be repelled by it.
The only other performance of note comes from Nelson, who might seem a little diminutive for the sheriff’s role but manages to come across like a bantamweight who can strike a hard blow. Franco shows up briefly himself as part of the background mob.
To be honest, watching “Child of God” often feels like cinematic punishment: the unsavory nature of McCarthy’s narrative combines with the rawness of Franco’s technique and the authenticity of Haze’s performance to make for a demanding 104 minutes. But it’s true to the spirit, if not always the letter, of the book, which isn’t an easy read, either.