You have to hand it to Hollywood polymath James Franco. He certainly seems unfazed when it comes to the challenges he sets himself. Adapting (with co-writer Matt Rager) and starring in this classic work from American author William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (2013) also marks his feature directorial debut. While it’s undeniably messy and unwieldy, Franco’s efforts in bring the oft-phrased ‘unfilmable’ novel to the screen results in some absorbing moments amongst the excessive stylistics. When their mother succumbs to an undisclosed illness, the Bundren family, farmers in early 20th century Mississippi, set out on a difficult trek across harsh terrain in order to deliver her to her final burial place.
The journey is often fraught with difficulties and as it progresses, the family are beset by a number of setbacks, both physically and mentally. There’s the sense here that Franco has really turned the material inside out in his attempt to realise it for the screen. Finding a cinematic device to cater for the book’s multiple character narrations, Franco and his collaborator have the cast members address the camera throughout various moments in the film. The director also creates a predominately split-screen vantage point to convey the Bundren’s sense of emotional and geographical dislocation. This device initially resembles the fascinating non-linear structure deployed in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey (1999), particularly when the action isn’t running concurrently between each image.
While this technique is suited to the story as it unfolds, it does grow increasingly tiresome as the action progresses. There’s a nagging feeling that the stylistics choices get in the way of the storytelling and that what’s being laid out is sometimes more akin to an extended art installation piece than that of a narrative feature. The film actually proves more effective during the uncluttered, single image moments where the family’s woes resonate much deeper. The superb cast Franco has pulled together help to smooth over some of the bumps, particularly in the case of Tim Blake Nelson as the emotionally-aloof, dentally-challenged patriarch. Franco is also strong as one of the sons, and it’s nice to see a cast-against-type Danny McBride in a small role as a helpful neighbour. Franco may have fallen a little short of his aims, but the lack of even a whiff of vanity means that As I Lay Dying is a commendable failure rather than a self-indulgent one.