Requiring a decent knowledge of the source material (or at least a quick skim of the Wikipedia page) to fully grasp (and full disclosure, I haven't read the book), Franco's film almost plays out as William Faulkner's "Oregon Trail." The basic premise is pretty straightforward: following the death of matriarch Addie, the Bundren family head to Jefferson, Mississippi to lay her to rest. Along the way, we'll see various family secrets and more come to the surface. But the journey isn't easy: an unwanted pregnancy, a broken leg, a raging river and more will provide obstacles to the Bundrens, who will deal with the past so they can move on to their uncertain future.
For all of the respect Franco clearly has for the source material, "As I Lay Dying" simply doesn't have much of an actual story to tell. The Bundrens are clearly a troubled brood, but what further insight there is to be gleaned from the film remains obtuse. Their quest is the main thrust of any momentum the movie has, and yet it often feels like the picture is spinning its cart wheels. Not much really "happens" in the movie until the third act, and if we're supposed to get any deeper meaning from the various voice-overs, which serve up plenty of Faulkner's poetic wordplay, that went completely over our head.
Ultimately, "As I Lay Dying" is another Franco lark that is more of an experiment with form than a fully realized movie. One almost gets the sense that Franco is working out ideas with "As I Lay Dying," with the goal of creating a cohesive film as a secondary ambition to simply capturing the feel of Faulkner's prose. Perhaps there is something noble in that endeavor, and we're always intrigued to see what happens when talent with access to do whatever they want try their hand at the unconventional. If anything, the film confirms that Franco does have the skills to create cinematic art, but he'll have to get out of his own way first to do it. [C]
This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.