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Venice Review: James Franco's Cormac McCarthy Adaptation 'Child Of God'

Reviews
by Oliver Lyttelton
August 31, 2013 11:33 AM
8 Comments
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Child Of God

James Franco might not be the first person to debut a film he'd directed at each of the three major European festivals in the same year (Ulrich Seidl recently managed the feat with his 'Paradise' trilogy, albeit not in the same calendar year). But it's an undoubtedly impressive run, especially given that Franco has spent the same period of time starring in two legitimate blockbusters in the shape of "Oz The Great And Powerful" and "This Is The End," as well as working on his umpteen other projects of various shapes and sizes.

 

He certainly wins points for his work ethic, but reaction to the films so far—"Interior Leather Bar," which played Berlin after premiering at Sundance, and "As I Lay Dying," which unspooled at Cannes—has been decidedly mixed. But nevertheless, hopes were high for his latest, "Child Of God," given that it's based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Road" and "No Country For Old Men," and that it's been selected for the official competition at the festival. Unfortunately, those hopes, for us at least, were decidedly quashed.

The Tennessee-set tale focuses on Lester Ballard (Scott Haze), a youngish man left to his own devices after the death of his father. The family land is being auctioned off, which he starts to fixate on, as he's driven into the wilderness. The hard-but-fair Sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) keeps a careful eye on him, but Ballard is mostly rejected from society, and when he finds a dead woman in a car, he has sex with her and takes her back home for a kind of twisted domesticity. When that body is lost in a fire, Ballard starts trying to replace her.

Child Of God

The eyebrow-raising nature of the material shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who knows McCarthy's work, or has been paying attention to the kind of projects that Franco picks to direct. But he hasn't really found an approach to the novel to make it work on screen, unfortunately. For most of the running time, the adaptation is faithful to a fault—with huge chunks of narration lifted from the book, and even lines of McCarthy's prose written out on screen. It comes off as unimaginative, particularly combined with a vague visual approach that pairs an often-aimless camera with Christina Voros' drab digital photography.

Franco also doesn't appear to be sure of the tone to take. There's a lacing of black comedy through much of the second half, but Ballard's acts are so repellent (without ever quite being as transgressive as they're perhaps meant to be) that it's hard to find it funny. It's not that the director is lacking in compassion towards his subject—there's some in there—but Ballard's clearly suffering from a mental illness, and Franco seems to want the audience to find that amusing somehow. The film's final sequence, set in his cave hideout, is easily the film's strongest because it's happy to play it straight.

Child Of God

That scene is unfortunately hampered by an unnecessary and distracting cameo from the filmmaker. Franco can be a very fine actor, particularly when paired with a strong director, but here he's flat and unconvincing, traits which extend to most of the supporting players. But more critically for a movie that centers so tightly on one figure, Haze simply isn't good enough as Ballard.

His rodent-like physicality and thick drawl (incomprehensible enough that the film is presented with English subtitles) are effective, but it's a very mannered and theatrical turn. Flaws with the filmmaking could perhaps have been forgiven for a tour-de-force central turn, but there's little to learn about the character once the first couple of reels are through.

The whole thing feels sort of tossed off, like it was made by film students over a couple of weekends. And that's the root of our problem with Franco's directorial work. His restless and experimental nature is to be lauded to a degree, and you feel that if he were to focus his considerable energies on a single project, then he might be able to come up with something special. Because otherwise, if he can't make a piece of material like "Child Of God" into something worth watching, we'd probably rather see him spend his time in other people's movies. [D] 

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8 Comments

  • Chambord | September 3, 2013 9:55 AMReply

    The twitter "review" is my fav so far, out of Venice:

    olilyttelton ‏@olilyttelton
    CHILD OF GOD: Worst Mumford & Sons video ever. #Venezia70


    Ok, tied with:

    Neil Young (UK) ‏@JigsawLounge
    MISS VIOLENCE (Avranas '13) 3/10. A Greek film. #Venezia70

    olilyttelton ‏@olilyttelton
    PARKLAND: Crap and to the left. Crap and to the left. Crap and to the left. #Venezia70

    David Jenkins ‏@daveyjenkins
    PARKLAND (Landesman) Q. How awful could a movie possibily be? A. PARKLAND. Makes BOBBY look like La Regle du Jeu.

  • Franco/Haze4theWIN | September 2, 2013 7:31 PMReply

    "James Franco might not be the first person to debut a film he'd directed at each of the three major European festivals in the same year (Ulrich Seidl recently managed the feat with his 'Paradise' trilogy, albeit not in the same calendar year)", this doesn't make any sense, because technically Franco IS the first person to undertake this task from my understanding and from other reports.

    Which means he has made history in doing so (which certain critics fail to mention); you can't make the excuse of "albeit not in the same calendar year".

    I think, by now everyone who comes onto this site knows (you have made it perfectly clear) that you are truly not a fan of Franco's with the backhanded insults that comes with your articles concerning him.

    So, I expected nothing less in this review, especially, when it comes to Franco's directing. I still remember the time you stated that James Franco wasn't a Movie Star and we should all wait until Oz before in your opinion we can claim so, if it's a hit. Whilst, the rest of the world already knew that Franco was a A-list Movie Star.

    This movie made a big splash in Venice (yes, with some divides), with Scott Haze earning widespread praise for his performance and legit candidate for Coppa Volpi award for best actor (hope he wins, plus the movie).

    This means Franco did something RIGHT as a director, which brought out the best in Haze (his breakthrough role). The world has now discovered a new talent, who has been given an opportunity by Franco and Haze shines, with Franco's directing on point.

    So with you stating "Because otherwise, if he can't make a piece of material like "Child Of God" into something worth watching, we'd probably rather see him spend his time in other people's movies", clearly that's your opinion but as the Guardian stated in their review giving it 4 stars, if it had been another director who had made this movie the critics "They'd lap it up, smack their lips and ask for more.", and I've noticed other critics who are fairer reviewers saying the same thing (seriously, why do I have the feeling, if it was Ben Affleck, Ryan Gosling or JGL it would be getting either A or B).

  • Alan B | September 2, 2013 10:15 AMReply

    One of our finest artists.

  • Law | August 31, 2013 9:36 PMReply

    Franco sinks to unfathomable depths

  • Ash | August 31, 2013 2:46 PMReply

    ugh he sees himself as a "real artist" huh? He's so overrated.

  • yer | August 31, 2013 11:58 AMReply

    Franco, a jack of all trades and a master of none. Has he directed anything remotely good?

  • Roberto | September 1, 2013 11:40 AM

    I'm pretty sure he's funding these himself.

  • tp | September 1, 2013 4:43 AM

    Agreed . James has his head up his own ass . It is amazing people continue to fund his lousy movies .

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