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Film Spotlight: Child of God


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Not having read the 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel Child of God, the only thing I was really expecting from James Franco's film adaptation of the same name was extreme perversity and violence. It's Cormac McCarthy after all, the manly man writer whose modus operandi has always been using isolation and gore to shed light on everyday folks like you and me. See, for example, Blood Meridian, The Road, etc.

Franco's very bad film didn't disappoint on that score. You'll get the opportunity to see it twice when it plays for an exclusive engagement at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque on Thursday and Friday.

Child of God is categorized as a crime thriller and focuses, through three narrative installments, on a demented outcast named Lester Ballard (Scott Haze, a Franco regular who also appears in the William Faulkner adaptations).

Ballard communicates in a sporadically intelligible murmur and does things like rape corpses as he aimlessly wanders through and around Tennessee's sylvan Sevier County. It looks to be around the middle of the 20th century, so CSI-style law enforcement is out of the question. A suspicious sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) comes upon Ballard every once in awhile and informs him that his lifestyle ain't cutting it.

Which constitutes about 80 percent of the film's dialogue. As Ballard descends — both literally and figuratively — into a cave, he howls a lot and whispers sweet nothings to inanimate objects. Projectile snot is involved in a recurring way. Ballard's crimes escalate in number and depravity. Franco himself makes a weird and distracting final-act appearance.

I'll concede that my personal frustrations are, at least in part, extra-cinematic. It's annoying to me that James Franco has anointed himself the adapter of some of fiction's greatest 20th-century practitioners. With much of McCarthy's work, for instance, the thrill of the reading experience comes from the writer's language, the clash of high and colloquial diction, the unflinching descriptions of horrific acts.

Franco certainly seems to get a charge out of being the guy to bring this classic material to the screen: He directed the as-of-yet unreleased The Sound and the Fury and cast himself as the mentally challenged Benjy Compson. Join me in shuddering, won't you? Point is, without a traditional narrative structure, Franco hasn't given us anything else to hang our hats on. Haze gives it a good college try as the touched Ballard, but the frantic zooms and the handheld cinematography and the contextless direct-quote voiceover combine for some truly rudderless filmmaking.

Much more is lost than gained here, in the adaptation.

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