“James Franco is the fan-tailed peacock of the festival circuit, seemingly always on hand when there’s a party to be attended, an exhibition to open or a happening to make happen,” begins the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. “Last year he came to Venice to show off his art, while on this occasion his self-satisfied smile can be seen beaming down from a series of advertising hoardings hung all over town. Almost as an aside, Franco has a film in contention for the Golden Lion. Child of God is a shocking tale of backwoods lunacy and one man’s descent into hell. Perhaps the most shocking thing about it is that it’s really rather good.”
“Moving right along from his well-received As I Lay Dying, James Franco hurls himself into the work of one of Faulkner’s spiritual descendants with this determinedly rough and ragged take on Cormac McCarthy’s chilling 1973 novel, Child of God,” writes Variety‘s Justin Chang. “Descending into the cavernous lower depths of human depravity inhabited by Lester Ballard, modern literature’s most famous necrophile, Franco has emerged with an extremely faithful, suitably raw but still relatively hemmed-in adaptation that compares favorably with his earlier films, yet falls short of achieving a truly galvanizing portrait of social and sexual deviance.”
“The Tennessee-set tale focuses on Lester Ballard (Scott Haze), a youngish man left to his own devices after the death of his father,” writes Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist. “The family land is being auctioned off, which he starts to fixate on, as he’s driven into the wilderness. The hard-but-fair Sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) keeps a careful eye on him, but Ballard is mostly rejected from society, and when he finds a dead woman in a car, he has sex with her and takes her back home for a kind of twisted domesticity. When that body is lost in a fire, Ballard starts trying to replace her.” As for Haze’s performance, “rodent-like physicality and thick drawl (incomprehensible enough that the film is presented with English subtitles) are effective, but it’s a very mannered and theatrical turn. Flaws with the filmmaking could perhaps have been forgiven for a tour-de-force central turn, but there’s little to learn about the character once the first couple of reels are through.” Lyttelton gives the film a D.
Screen‘s Lee Marshall disagrees. Haze, “who is alone on screen for much of the time, holds nothing back in his strong and sometimes alarmingly deranged performance as Lester.” What’s more, “Franco somehow manages to inject a note of humour into the story of a man who comes across more as maladroit misfit than evil sociopath. The director also picks up on McCarthy’s note of lament for a wilderness lifestyle that was once a great American dream but has, by the time of the film’s 1950s setting, gone bad and been driven, literally, underground.”
“Far more than its immediate predecessor in the Franco canon—which is shaping up into its own unclassifiable subgenre—this latest project is destined to divide reactions from whatever adventurous sliver of an audience it can muster,” predicts David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “But as a character study of a figure said to be partly inspired by Wisconsin murderer and body snatcher Ed Gein (also an influence on the killers in Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the film succeeds on its own terms. That is in large part down to Haze’s unstinting commitment to the role…. Shuffling around his wilderness domain with his rifle tucked under his arm, hunched over in pain, scratching and twitching, Lester is a memorably bizarre figure. He’s a monster but also a sad example of America’s dispossessed rural poor, who fittingly invites both disgust and sympathy.”
Update, 9/3: Writing for the Atlantic, Jon Frosch finds Child of God “a chore to sit through: a dramatically shapeless movie which demands that we accompany the scowling anti-hero while he wanders, rapes, defecates and yells until he froths at the mouth for 104 very slow-moving minutes.”
Update, 9/4: “Lester is a little like Denis Lavant’s sewer-dwelling troglodyte in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, only with about half the charisma,” writes the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek. “We’re supposed to feel sympathy for him, and maybe we would, if only Franco and his cinematographer, Christina Voros (who also shot As I Lay Dying), could figure out where to put the camera. Time and again I found myself looking at a wobbly shot of somebody’s slouched shoulder, or a not-very-interesting left ear, wondering what information, exactly, these visuals were intended to convey. Life is uncertain? Posture is important? Your guess is as good as mine.”
Update, 9/7: “Shot in West Virginia, Child of God is a bold portrait of the animal in all humans,” writes Time‘s Richard Corliss, “and its transgressive elements have their shock value, but Franco’s naturalistic direction makes the film oddly bland and deficient in dramatic impact. This is deranged passion recollected not in tranquility but in ennui.”
Updates, 9/8: “If asked, Lester would deride Norman Bates as a mere taxidermist, with no real taste for adventure,” writes Anthony Lane for the New Yorker. “There are people who go to movies, and there are people who go to film festivals, and the difference between them, by and large, is that only the latter are willing to line up for necrophilia at nine o’clock in the morning. Not just willing, but bright with larkish zeal, getting there half an hour ahead of schedule so as to grab the best seat. Necrophilia being one of those things, obviously, that you don’t want to spoil by watching from the wrong angle.”
“Everything feels feeble and chancy here,” writes Adam Nayman in Cinema Scope, “from the portentous and intermittent voiceover narration to the lazily deployed musical score to poor Haze’s horribly directed performance, which never has a chance to build because he’s playing a cartoon mountain-man from shot number one. And while it’s distracting when Herr Director appears in the final reel as a member of a posse trying to bring thrill-killer Lester to justice, the self-casting also proves apposite: the look on Franco’s face as his quarry slowly gets away from him is a pretty apt portrait of the artist as a young man who has no idea what he’s doing here.”
Update, 9/11: Marlow Stern interviews Franco for the Daily Beast.
Update, 9/14: Child of God is “a sincere but fundamentally useless ode to a madman, which does little more than invite us to gawk at the unspeakable,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve. “No fan could ask for a more faithful representation, but a true fan would understand, as Franco does not, that the true act of respect would be to leave it on the page.”
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