James Franco’s adaptation of the sick little Cormac McCarthy period novel Child of God is surprisingly pretty good. It follows a snaggletoothed homeless hillbilly named Lester Ballard (Scott Haze), who gets more and more alienated and animallike, to the point where he does some not-safe-for-work-or-anywhere-else things with the body of a dead girl he finds and then goes out and gets his-self even more inanimate companions. In the novel, McCarthy gives Lester more human contact to fill out the man’s existence, whereas the movie’s central figure is mostly confined to unpleasant encounters with a pointedly unsympathetic “high sheriff” played by Tim Blake Nelson. But the absence of other living creatures gives Child of God a bleak integrity.
I’m beginning to get the drift of Franco, the renaissance hipster whom some critics have branded a “dilettante.” I’m not sure he’s that. What he’s averse to is showing effort. For some reason — pride? — he wants you to think he tosses off everything (stories, novels, films, performances, important hosting gigs) as if it’s no biggie, part of a full life without moody dawdling. People who are that prolific — who work quickly and jump from one thing to another — often achieve greatness, and even if Franco’s not there yet (by a long shot), there’s always tomorrow and the next day.
The appearance of artlessness is his strategy. We catch Lester on the fly, as Lester lives on the fly, scampering around with squirrels hanging from his belt and an old rifle. Haze appears to have immersed himself totally in the part. You can almost smell the odor of his skin and ragged clothes, and he has terrible diction — he sounds like a deaf person who can’t hear himself speak. He’s like a deaf person in another ways: The words that dribble from his mouth are not those of a simpleton. They show a cunning, an awareness of himself in the world. Parts of his backstory (taken from the book) are narrated by oldsters, and a sense of what made him emerges: a blend of terrible genes (there’s a history of malfunction and antisocial behavior in his family) and a nightmarish upbringing. He’s complicated enough to keep watching.
And watch him Franco does, neutrally, in a rough-hewn mix of long and medium shots, though there are moments that pierce the objectivity. The most obvious is when Lester buys a pretty red dress for a (stiff) female companion and pretends he’s on a date. Later, when he shoots up his chief companions, a large stuffed tiger and bear that he won in a carnival shooting-game that he thinks have been plotting against him, it feels like a real, grisly murder. And when a mob (led by Franco) finally comes for him, we feel the kind of a sympathy we do for the Frankenstein monster, a creature that has killed without conscience — that doesn’t belong in this world — but is still a child of God, even if that label is ironic. This seemingly casual film has real innards.