Review: James Franco Directs Child of God, at the New York Film Festival

If Child of God had been made by James Franco instead of "James Franco," by just another filmmaker instead of the public figure whose career and self-consciously created image seem like one hydra-headed piece of performance art -- actor in blockbusters and indies, fiction-writer, student at too many schools, the guy slyly asked by Stephen Colbert, "Are you a fraud?" (watch the video here) -- it's unlikely anyone would question why it's in the New York Film Festival. The film is a powerful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 1973 novel, directed -- and written by Franco and Vince Jolivette -- with such discipline and intelligence that it captures the mordant darkness of McCarthy's world.

That doesn't mean it is pleasant or easy to watch. Set in the isolated backwoods of Tennessee and shot in bleak brown tones, Child of God is about a serial necrophiliac named Lester Ballard, repulsive, violent, barely civilized. Does a movie's main character poop (so to speak) in the woods? This one does, then wipes his butt with a stick. (The scene is straight from McCarthy's novel.) Next to Child of God, No Country for Old Men plays like a lighthearted comedy.

The film doesn't try to explain or justify Ballard, doesn't ask us to sympathize. Instead, it exposes a humanity so deeply buried beneath the animal behavior we hardly believe it exists. That's a difficult, delicate balancing act, yet it's exactly what Franco does.

We're set up by a voiceover from Tim Blake Nelson as the sheriff, who calls Ballard "a child of God, much like yourself perhaps." At the start, Ballard grunts, flails and attacks an auctioneer selling his family's land -- and degenerates from there. Scott Haze plays Ballard with his eyes rolled back in his head, mumbling and drooling; he's so effective you might think he was some feral child instead of a professional actor committed to playing repugnant.

Without a home, Ballard lives in a barn, then the woods, scavenging for food, regressing at every step. He stumbles across a couple parked in a lovers' lane having sex, and masturbates against the car. He finds another parked couple dead from carbon monoxide, and makes the corpse of the woman his new love interest, carrying her home as casually as he had earlier carried a dead rabbit. One of the voiceovers scattered through the film speculates that Ballard was never the same after his father's suicide, letting us know that he was not mentally damaged from birth. There seems to be no excuse for his existence.

Yet the film makes its point -- justifies its own existence -- with an eye-opening moment. Ballard wins some giant stuffed animals at a carnival, takes them home and treats them like friends, the way a child would play with dolls -- until one day he shoots them, convinced they've been talking behind his back. That moment crystallizes his character as a truly pathetic creature who has the worst of two worlds: he lives on animal instinct yet has the kind of mental delusions only a human can suffer. He's still a vile psychopath, but also a child of God. And in McCarthy's world, God is rarely benign, his children often destructive.

At times the film is too reverent toward its source. There's no need for text from the novel on screen, a stylistic tic of Franco's. And the voiceovers, from various unidentified townspeople, don't work as they do in the novel: as a Greek chorus, and also relief from Ballard's perspective, a little welcome breathing room. Here they're simply functional, feeding us information.

But Franco and Jolivette did make one very smart change. The crucial scene of Ballard shooting the stuffed animals was added, almost on the fly. Franco explained this during an unusual press conference after the New York Film Festival screening. He was meant to be Skyped in but something went wrong. What we saw was a split screen: on the left, an empty chair and Jolivette's name; on the right, a big square of plain blue and Franco's disembodied voice. Franco the performance artist couldn't have planned it better.