Empathy of Man, by Josh Long
James Franco has become something of a Hollywood enigma in recent years. He’s made his way from a Freaks and Geeks stoner to an artist/author/musician/screenwriter/producer/director – what else is left? For those of us who know him primarily as an actor, it has been very interesting to look into his other endeavors, especially those within the film world. The $64,000 question, perhaps, is whether he’s a “jack of all trades, master of none.” Is he an astute polymath, or a celebrity whose status as such has given him a chance to play across various disciplines? While his new film Child of God may not answer these questions, it does give us a chance to cast a critical eye over his instincts and decisions now that he’s behind the camera.
Child of God is based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, an early entry into McCarthy’s oeuvre, written in 1973. Exhibiting the author’s trademark darkness, the story is about the vagrant Lester Ballard (played in Franco’s film by Scott Haze), a wild and perhaps mentally ill man living in the forests of Appalachia. Lester’s appearance, simple-mindedness, and fits of rage have made him an outcast from society. Wary of Lester’s unpredictability, the local Sherriff (Tim Blake Nelson) checks on him periodically – that is, if he can be found. As we look deeper and deeper into Lester’s life, we learn that his inability to grasp normal human interaction leads to unnatural and upsetting conclusions.
Every Cormac McCarthy adaptation since 2007 will have to be stand up to No Country for Old Men, a film which perfectly captures the tone of the book and the author. Even with that impossibly high standard, this film does pretty well. It does take some time to find its footing; the first act meanders and rarely reaches the depth the story calls for. Scattered moments meant to heighten the tension come off as overwrought. It’s as if the film is unsure of how serious it needs to be, or where it’s going. Once it makes it to the second act (albeit awkwardly labeled by unnecessary intertitles), it establishes a clear tone and sticks to it. Franco learns to take his time where he needs to, and to let heavy moments sink in. The third act brings everything to a boiling point, leading to a conclusive ending (an ending that may be misread as abrupt; given the film’s focus on the person of Lester, it ends exactly where it should).
Scott Haze’s performance as Lester is one of those strong, committed performances in which the actor truly falls away to be replaced by the character. Haze allows him to be as gross as the story requires while maintaining sympathy through his humanity. This is especially necessary for Franco’s adaptation, because that’s where this film finds its center. It’s above all about how Lester, while ruthless and possibly insane, is still a person. He desperately desires human interaction, though he may go about it in the most depraved ways. McCarthy’s book could easily become a serial-killer style horror movie, but Franco sidesteps the pulp horror aspects to focus on character. We may not understand why Lester does the things he does, but we are still able to identify with him. While we can’t condone his actions, we root for him the same way we might root for a Travis Bickle. The choice in treatment makes sense coming from Franco as an actor. Actors must dig into and understand their characters, strange or unsavory as they might seem.
However (and here is where we get into my personal love for McCarthy’s work), while this is an interesting and certainly defensible choice, it lacks some of the power inherent in the novel. Franco’s film is trying to tell us that a person is a person is a person, no matter how inhuman they might seem. McCarthy’s book similarly desires to connect us to Lester; the film does well to quote the novel in describing him as “A child of God much like yourself perhaps.” The difference is that McCarthy stresses that Lester’s lusts, hates, and depravity are within all of us. We are all capable of becoming a Lester Ballard. This still creates a weird sympathy for him, but in a much darker, drearier way. Both approaches warn us from judging Lester. Franco’s does so because he’s still a lot like us. McCarthy’s does so because we’re a lot more like him than we want to believe. All of McCarthy’s work dwells in this Calvinistic world of Total Depravity; the world Franco creates for his adaptation isn’t untrue to the story, but it is a departure from the message of the source material.
There are missteps in the film (one being Franco’s distracting choice to include himself in a small role near the end of the film), but it still has a great deal going for it. As a character piece, it’s an effecting exploration of a man we might dismiss as beyond understanding. It expresses his odd and misplaced compassion with both empathy and gravitas. And while the study of Lester may come at the character differently from his original author, it’s certainly not a wrong choice. It’s the choice to look deeply enough to understand this man as much as we possibly can.