There are better Cormac McCarthy movies than James Franco’s grotty Child of God, an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning author’s novel of the same name. Yes, the same McCarthy who wrote No Country for Old Men and The Road.
Set in the 1960s in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it small town, Child of God begins with Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) being stripped of the house he grew up in since he was born. He has no choice but to let it be sold — his parents, the people who owned the house, are gone. His father killed himself when he was born and his mama ran off with another fella when Lester was young. He’s in his mid-thirties and has been squatting in this house until now.
Here’s more things you need to know about Lester: he’s uncivilized, can barely speak English coherently, isn’t concerned with social order, and can’t tell right from wrong (or has us all fooled and just doesn’t care). Since he’s now homeless, he wanders around the woods with nothing but a shotgun, committing horrific crimes that will rattle your soul.
Child of God was co-written and directed by James Franco, who needs no introduction. This very busy man has directed four films in 2013, and has four more on the way. He also starred in a lot of films last year and did a bunch of art projects. In short, he’s busy and is spreading himself too thin — and it shows in Child of God. The mood of this film makes me feel like he gave it very little attention. Franco is talented and intelligent, has an impressive number of degrees at NYU, and teaches at prestigious colleges from time to time. His mind is like a sponge and he just wants to keep learning — it’s why you always see him in diverse roles (doctor in one film, stoner in the next). He wants to challenge himself. But this film feels like a vanity project instead of a challenge; it’s just something to add to his colorful résumé.
The movie also requires narration because the film is split in three parts (like the book) — the problem here is the narrators sound bored as hell. The only thing that keeps us curious enough to continue watching Child of God is Lester’s outrageous adventures of murder and mayhem. Franco really goes for the shock factor in a few of these moments, but it only works because of Haze.
Haze is an actor ready to literally get awkwardly dirty for the sake of realism. There is a scene where he’s in the middle of taking a poo in the woods, and instead of wiping with leaves, he uses a hard, jagged-edged stick. When Child of God screened at Fantastic Fest last year, one of the producers told the crowd that Haze wanted it as perfect as can be, so he kept jamming piles of mud up his bum to make his portrayal of the unsanitary Lester more realistic. If this is true, Christian Bale better watch out because there’s a new Method Acting Sheriff in town, and his name is Scott Haze.
Haze is the only saving grace for this film. His performance as a man you want to hate (but kind of feel sorry for because nobody cared for him, nurtured him, or taught him how to be a human) is staggering. Other than a few minor roles in other weird James Franco projects, Haze hasn’t quite built up a big résumé just yet — but he will. During the film he faces off against Sheriff Fate (the great Tim Blake Nelson), a hard-ass sonofabitch whose soul purpose is to end Lester’s streak of chaos. When the two meet each time, Lester’s face remains passive, despite the Sheriff’s best effort to enrage or harm him. Absorbing them face off against each other is profoundly intense. I felt claustrophobic just watching it. Haze’s performance in this film means one thing: he’s going to go on to do big, big things.
Kicking Lester out of his home was perhaps the worst decision the town could have made. During his time wandering around and living in the woods, he has sex with a woman for murky purposes (she’s dead), falls in love with her, and unsuccessfully tries to build a life for them. So what happens to this savage man who murders, rapes, and steals? Does the sheriff finally take him down? Does he escape? These are questions you want answered if you’ve read the review this far, but I will leave that up to you to find out — it’s only fair to Haze for all the praise I’ve given his incredible and fierce performance. In the opening scene, an unnamed narrator claims Lester is, “a child of God much like yourself perhaps.” If this is true, jokes on us because only Satan could spawn a man like Lester Ballard.