The fact that James Franco is the subject of frequent mockery is sadly indicative of the cynicism of our times. A modern day renaissance man, Franco’s numerous endeavours may appear scattered and disorderly but, in an age where every artistic step is carefully calculated, they should nonetheless be applauded as the unshakable compulsion of an insatiable creative hunger. Given his history, it’s no surprise to see him take on William Faulkner’s seemingly unfilmable 1930 masterwork, As I Lay Dying. Franco is clearly cognisant of the difficulties of the source material, but he goes for its heart with all guns blazing.
It’s therefore unfortunate that the final product is akin to a failed experiment. The film opens with the death of Addie Bundren (Beth Grant), the family matriarch, and subsequently follows the journey to take her body to her grave, miles from the Bundren home. The family is poor and the road is rough; it often feels as if widower Anse (Tim Blake Nelson) is leading them nowhere. Fraternal tensions between Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green) and Darl (Franco himself) ebb and flow along the way, and old family ghosts are uncovered. Rather than smoothing over the formal innovations of Faulkner’s book in favour of a prestige adaptation Franco tackles them head-on, bravely attempting to replicate the novel’s extremely fragmentary structure.
Hazy voiceovers and split-screens are used but, in the absence of any character-specific stylisation, the fragments are indistinct, effectively undoing their very purpose. As a result, this whole film, while authentically down-and-dirty, feels like it takes place on a heightened plain, somewhere on the brink of consciousness. The scrappy and splintered digital photography is arguably a convincing cinematic rendering of Faulkner’s rugged, atmospheric prose. But there’s no concealing the fact that, without each character’s separate voice, the essence is lost. Indeed, Franco’s over-reliance on direct monologues to the camera is almost an admission of the inherent weakness of the structure.
There are still numerous things to like in As I Lay Dying. It’s a film that understands the weight of religion in the South; water is given a biblical significance, with the Mississippi River running like a bloodline beneath the Mason-Dixon line. It’s clearly a young man’s work; a forgettable folly born of an untamed, restless creative impulse. However, given the ambition and passion on display, audiences would be foolish not to keep an eye on Franco’s future directorial project, particularly his upcoming Cormac McCarthy adaptation Child of God.
The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our LFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.