Hot on the heels of his previous feature-length offering, Cannes select As I Lay Dying, James Franco made his directorial bow on the Venice Lido with last year’s Child of God (2013), a Gothic tale of violence, perversion and madness in the hill country of Tennessee, adapted from American writer Cormac McCarthy’s celebrated third novel. Out now on DVD in the UK, Scott Haze plays Lester Ballard, a solitary, unhinged individual who feels he has been robbed of his father’s land. Ballard roams the woods hunting rabbits, stealing chickens and muttering and cursing to himself. One day, he spies on a couple making out in a car and goes on to discover finds a half-naked woman beneath the canopy.
Local lawman Sheriff Fate (Tim Blake Nelson) keeps a watchful eye on Ballard, but when Lester finds a dead couple in a car, his descent into madness – fuelled by a famished loneliness – slips another rung. Following the success of the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007), McCarthy has quickly established himself as Hollywood’s inspiration of choice – Ridley Scott’s wildly misunderstood (and much-maligned) The Counsellor (2013) is from an original script for the novelist. Franco, for the most part, proves himself to be a faithful adaptor. If anything, his obvious love for the source material is all too evident as he reproduces chapter divisions and visualised quotations before our eyes. Similarly lifted from the page are chunks of narration by unidentified voices, which work well.
Ballard is God’s lonely man – a rustic Travis Bickle, if you will – and on-screen Haze gives an astonishing and brave performance of wildness and despair gone feral. His body is wracked by twitches and he expresses himself with grunts and roars. Even as he commits more and more horrific actions, our sympathy for him lingers far past the point where it should. There’s also a skewed logic to almost everything he does. A sinister version of Chaplin’s clown in The Gold Rush (1925), Ballard also shares the silent star’s indomitable will to persevere beyond human limits. Despite some suspicion, Franco is becoming an accomplished director and constructs Ballard’s world both chillingly and convincingly.
The film’s one jarring moment comes when Franco himself appears in a minor cameo. However, it’s testament to how well he has recreated the Tennessee landscape and period that his star presence seems so out of place at all. Franco also refuses to compromise when it comes to depicting the darker extremes of Ballard’s psyche, and scenes of necrophilia are played as part of the collapse of Ballard’s grasp on reality. With Child of God, Franco – through the excellent Haze – has created a dark portrait of an outcast, lacing it with his own bleak poetry and black humour.
The 70th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August to 7 September, 2013. For more of our Venice 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.