Child of God (2013)
Editor’s Note: Child of God opens in limited release August 1.
Child of God, the latest film from actor-director James Franco and based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, concerns one Lester Ballard (Scott Haze), a young man living in rural Tennessee in the early 1960s. Lester has increasingly found himself detached from society: his mama ran off, his pappy hung himself, and now the bank is selling the farm. Without family, friends, or a home, Lester, who from the very beginning seems more than a little touched in the head, finds himself living in an abandoned shack, skulking about the landscape and muttering to a pair of stuffed animals he calls friends.
Frequently in trouble with the law, the local sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) reacts to Lester’s many crimes with little more than a resigned scowl, though suspects Lester is on the verge of ramping up his activities. And ramp it up he does, as he stumbles across a teen girl’s corpse and takes it back to his shack, bedding her as though she was his new bride. Soon, Lester’s only link to society is the few moments he emerges from the woods to kill more young women, stashing their bodies in caves and adding them to his ever-expanding corpse harem.
Child of God captures the sparse terrain of rural Tennessee nicely, with flat natural lighting on the dry winter brush and deep blacks in the caves, but these evocative visuals are completely absent in the shots of the town or its people.
Though Lester is so isolated he’s essentially become feral, there is never any sense that a town, let alone an entire society, exists for him to be cut off from. There are individuals, certainly – a shopkeeper here, a farmer there – but rarely more than two human beings appear in the same scene together. Child of God captures the sparse terrain of rural Tennessee nicely, with flat natural lighting on the dry winter brush and deep blacks in the caves, but these evocative visuals are completely absent in the shots of the town or its people. The few scenes that take place in town are framed to exclude both residents and buildings; once inside, frost and sheer white sunlight block any view of the town outside. The film is book-ended by two scenes featuring groups of locals, but shot with an indifferent camera that has no interest in conveying the idea that those gathered are friends and neighbors.
This disinterest extends toward the narrative as well, where Lester’s past is evoked only in a few brief stories told by townsfolk and a handful of blank screens printed with direct quotes from the novel. It’s a conceit faithful to McCarthy’s book in its way, yet wholly ineffective in a film. The narration, which plays over uneventful footage of Lester roaming the countryside, recalls Lester’s previous shenanigans; inevitably, these stories trail off, contradict what we’ve seen, and, at times, make no sense, especially when the narrators stumble over McCarthy’s prose.
Adding to this incoherence are tiny attempts at humor peppered throughout the film. While McCarthy’s novel positively bathed itself in pitch black humor, Child of God is too timid to try for anything more than a few half-hearted chuckles here and there, and always at the expense of the victims. The film dehumanizes these victims – all women, all raped, or murdered, or both – as much as Lester does, though not ironically but rather out of a sort of cultural cluelessness. Most of his victims are so vaguely sketched that they aren’t even one-dimensional; they only exist in relation to Lester, because Lester is the only thing that the film finds important enough to care about.
The end result of this narrative jumble is a very dull film. Despite the disturbing crimes, the snot and the shit and the disembodied scalps, Child of God contains not even an ounce of energy. There are attempts to simulate action, usually by having Lester run around a lot and shout at things, and the cinematography is done in that wobbly handheld style of a million indies come and gone, but to no real purpose.
Yet Haze takes the character too far, fashioning him as a caveman, the last known Homo habilis on earth, not so much a missing link but the back end of the evolutionary line.
Scott Haze has an impressive commitment to his craft, and his Lester Ballard is frequently compelling. Yet Haze takes the character too far, fashioning him as a caveman, the last known Homo habilis on earth, not so much a missing link but the back end of the evolutionary line. Despite being a “child of God, much like yourself, perhaps,” he’s too far gone to identify with, too troubled to evoke anything but mild sympathy and the uncontrollable desire to cull him from the herd. We don’t recognize ourselves, or our neighbors, or the isolated among us in Lester, because we barely recognize him as human.
Had this been shown as a transition, as Lester’s devolution in response to abandonment and trauma, it could have been a powerful film indeed. Instead, Child of God eschews character development in its rush to show Lester in full caveman mode from the very first frames; in doing so, the film becomes the modern-day equivalent of those old-timey freak shows that trotted out someone with physical deformities or mental ailments and called it entertainment. No matter how well-intentioned Child of God may have once been, no matter how much it wants to be a literary adaptation of a backwoods Gothic thriller, it is ultimately nothing more than cynical, heartless hicksploitation.
No matter how well-intentioned Child of God may have once been, no matter how much it wants to be a literary adaptation of a backwoods Gothic thriller, it is ultimately nothing more than cynical, heartless hicksploitation.