When it comes to his own image, James Franco's been happy to poke fun at himself in movies like This Is the End and in odd guest arcs on General Hospital. He's not above making giant studio films and posting the occasional nude selfie. But when it comes to how he's looked at as a filmmaker, he wants to be taken seriously. Very, very seriously.
The actor, writer, artist, doctoral student, Vice columnist, reluctant Oscar host, professor, and musician has directed or co-directed a dozen full-length movies so far, though you'd be forgiven for not having seen one yet. Indie and sometimes experimental, Franco the filmmaker's yet to turn out a film that's registered beyond the festival circuit and small theatrical releases. The most potentially accessible of the bunch, a 2010 doc about Saturday Night Live that started as the coolest possible student project, will apparently finally be coming out on Hulu in time for the show's 40th anniversary next year.
While Franco's earlier movies as a director include sillier stuff like The Ape, in which he plays a struggling writer forced to share an apartment with a Hawaiian shirt-wearing primate, the more recent ones have been increasingly, intently bookish, as if he's become focused on demonstrating his artistic legitimacy by piggybacking on famous authors. Two, The Broken Tower and the forthcoming Bukowski, are about major literary figures. Three are adaptations of celebrated, challenging novels of the sort that tend to get described as "unfilmable."
As I Lay Dying and the upcoming The Sound and the Fury are from William Faulkner. Child of God, which opens in limited release this Friday, Aug. 1, is based on a book of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, an author for whom Franco's been very public with his love.
But loving something doesn't always mean you're ready to bring it to screen. Faulkner may have done some work as a screenwriter, but the stream-of-consciousness stylings of his novels have thwarted filmmakers before. There was a 1959 The Sound and the Fury starring Yul Brynner that Franco dismissed by pointing out it didn't "try to adapt the style and structure of that book. They just took the narrative. And if you just take the narrative, it's just a Southern melodrama about a family falling apart."
In his own first take on Faulker in As I Lay Dying, Franco tried to approach the problem of adapting the book's singular style and 15 different narrators by layering in voiceover and using split screens to show the isolation of the characters, even when they're in the same room. It's an evocative solution, giving a sense of the different and unique points of view represented through the story as the Bundren family struggles to fulfill the burial wishes of their late matriarch. But it's also the one big idea the film has in what soon becomes an interminable, impenetrable trudge on screen, the end project feeling like something that would be better off projected in pieces on a gallery wall than shown in one long sequence.
Franco's latest film to reach theaters, Child of God, is an equally difficult adaptation. McCarthy's dark and lyrical writing has lent itself to some great movies, like the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men, and some middling ones, like 2000's All the Pretty Horses. Child of God's a particularly tricky novel about Lester Ballard, an outcast living in 1960s Tennessee whose life of isolation and poverty eventually leads him to murder and necrophilia. "He moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of sunlight with a constrained truculence. Saxon and Celtic bloods. A child of God much like yourself perhaps," the book says of its protagonist. Franco introduces the film by having some of these words read in voiceover, but otherwise trusts the proceedings to his leading man Scott Haze, who turns in a feral, pitiable, repellant take on Lester.
There's no arguing that it's one hell of a performance. Haze is on screen by himself most of the time, and when he has company, it's usually in the form of a corpse. Muttering, barely comprehensible, Lester's a clown and a grotesque, bellowing his rage and glee to no one, burning himself while cooking a potato over a lamp, shooting at a cow just to see what happens (it, unsurprisingly, dies). Deemed undesirable by human company and warned away by the sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson), Lester first takes in a set of stuffed animals he wins at a fair, then stumbles on the convenient dead bodies of a couple who'd been canoodling in a car. The woman he takes home as a companion, having sex with her, but also dressing her up and having one-sided conversations in the shack in which he's squatting.
Child of God doesn't flinch at the details of Lester's behavior — Haze plays up the character's animal qualities with the amount of snot and phlegm and other body fluids that end up on display. (In a true method moment, he takes an on-screen dump, then tries to wipe with a tree branch.) The movie observes him dispassionately as it immerses us in his world, never trying to put us in his strange head. And that's why, despite Haze's dedication, what we're watching starts to feel more like an acting stunt than a convincing world on screen. The loose camerawork and minimalist setting make the leap tougher — as Lester humps away at his first (but not last) dead body (played by Nina Ljeti), it doesn't feel shocking or punishing, but abstract, like, once again, someone's art project rather than some filmic whole.
There's an earnestness to Franco's directorial output that diffuses any easy accusations of pretension — he clearly has sincere enthusiasm for the work he's trying to put on screen, and to really be grappling with issues of adaptation. And these projects are clearly labors of love, ones that are destined for specialized arthouse audiences willing to venture into rough material. But Franco's ambitions have yet to balance out the central issue, which is that these books don't beg to be adapted, and they don't benefit from it. Some literary works are easily ported to the big screen, and others aren't, and Franco's yet to bring anything to them cinematically that wasn't done far better on the page. Sometimes you hurt the ones you love, and sometimes you just provide proof that they're better off being left alone.