For some reason, James Franco keeps getting pissed on by the media for doing too much: acting, writing, directing, producing, teaching and taking classes for his Ph.D. I mean, why isn’t this dude out partying with Lindsay Lohan and starting his own fashion line? Instead, Franco exercises his literary bent by starring on Broadway in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and making films of the William Faulkner novels As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.
The Franco film opening right now is Child of God, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel that Franco directed from a script he wrote with Vince Jolivette and in which he plays a small role. It’s rough material. The film’s protagonist is Lester Ballard, played by Scott Haze in a performance that can be described for starters as phenomenal.
In 1960s Sevier County, Tennessee, Lester is a handful. I’m understating. Since his daddy hanged himself, Lester is even more the antisocial, grunting hermit, shooting at strangers who threaten to auction his property. When Lester finds a dead girl in a car, he takes her home for sex that becomes a pantomime of love. McCarthy’s source was the true-crime case of Ed Gein, a Fifties-era serial killer whose depraved life inspired Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What Franco does, without condoning Lester’s actions, is dodge every cliché of horror and necrophilia. McCarthy saw Lester in words Franco echoes in voice-over and in every frame of the film as “a child of God much like yourself, perhaps.”
This is ambitious, challenging filmmaking, elevated by Franco’s compassion and Haze’s revelatory acting. OK, the film trips up on its attempt to lace tragedy with gallows humor. But Franco is out there trying something, balancing literature and cinema in a tightrope act that is never less than exciting to watch.