James Franco Takes His Directorial Meat Cleaver to Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Child of God’

The good, the bad and the ugly

Scott Have in Child of God.
Scott Have in Child of God.

What did we do to deserve James Franco? A good actor who sees himself as director, writer, poet, artist, visionary and God only knows what else, he thinks he’s Orson Welles. In one year, he acted in five movies, directed a few more, starred in a Broadway revival of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, reduced William Faulkner to literary hash with the gimmicky bomb As I Lay Dying, and he’s got another Faulkner, a remake of The Sound and the Fury, waiting for release in the fall. Now it’s Cormac McCarthy’s turn. The prevailing mood of Child of God, published in 1973, is filth, alienation and inertia. You can have it.

(1/4 stars)

Written by: James Franco and Vince Jolivette
Directed by:
James Franco
Starring: James Franco, Scott Haze and Tim Blake Nelson
Running time: 104 min.

This is the story of Lester Ballard, played by mumbling, scabby Franco protégé Scott Haze, who came to New York recently to star in a disastrous Off-Broadway play called The Long Shrift, also directed by his mentor. The play (and especially Mr. Haze’s performance in it) was critically eviscerated, and when Child of God was shown last year at the Venice Film Festival, Mr. Haze’s incoherence required it to be screened with English subtitles. What does this tell you, besides how much smarter you’ll be if you stay home? Set in the ’60s in the backwoods of Sevier County, Tennessee, Child of God is about a redneck misfit and world-class freak, rejected by society and turned into a caveman with a penchant for humping corpses. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

When the county sells off Lester’s father’s property for non-payment of taxes, he retreats to an abandoned shack in the forest and becomes a mud-caked recluse, sleeping on the dirt floor with a loaded rifle by his side. When he was 10 years old, he watched his daddy commit suicide by hanging himself, and Lester has never been right in the head again. Now he sometimes wanders off and kills somebody’s livestock for food, but his favorite thing is catching birds with his bare hands and ripping their heads off with his teeth like the deranged “geek” attractions in carnival side shows.

The film is an exercise in tedium, hot-socketed to life by an occasional shock effect, like Mr. Haze defecating for the camera. But its big moment comes when Lester, who has turned into a bestial serial killer, finds a couple dead in a parked car from carbon monoxide poisoning and indulges in a little drooling necrophilia. Of course he takes the woman’s body back to the cabin and props her up next to his roommates—three stuffed animal dolls won in a shooting gallery at the country fairgrounds. It drags on from one pretentious stunt to the next, stretching into one hour and 45 minutes of pointless depravity. The creepy acting, which includes an equally noxious appearance by Tim Blake Nelson as the toothless sheriff, gives Mr. Franco’s self-indulgent direction an extra dollop of depravity. The almost wordless screenplay, by Mr. Franco and Vince Jolivette, occasionally features passages from the early Cormac McCarthy novel spoken by a variety of unnamed off-screen narrators, punctuated by bluegrass music.

A stark, shallow, messed-up shambles of a movie, Child of God is such a James Franco ego trip that it even features a curious end credit for “Mr. Franco’s scheduling coordinator.” That’s a new one. I’m waiting for the one that thanks “Mr. Franco’s career-retirement counselor.” I’ll pay money to see that one. James Franco Takes His Directorial Meat Cleaver to Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Child of God’