If you were one of the unlucky few to see one of James Franco’s first directing efforts, 2005’s “The Ape,” you might be reluctant to risk even 14 minutes on “Herbert White.” Luckily, directors can change; as “Herbert White” shows, they can grow into competent, even extraordinary artists. With the help of the Tisch School of the Arts, Franco’s short film – premiering at the Sundance film festival this year – is jarring and disgusting, in the best ways.
Michael Shannon stars in the role of Herbert White, a character based on the poem of the same name by Frank Bidart. The story follows Herbert as he works in the lumber industry, supports his family, and stalks and murders women he picks up in town. While Herbert is not exactly sympathetic, viewers are allowed to enter the mind of a serial killer, and realize that most of the time he behaves like everyone else. Movies like “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” have done this before, but to successfully position the audience inside the mind of a complex human monster in 14 short minutes is quite a feat.
Michael Shannon embodies Herbert with his greasy, long hair, bad skin, and grimace. He lives in a beautiful forest, but the screeches of saws, radio static, yelling, and Herbert’s humming and scratching create a totally unnerving environment. Likewise, Franco’s choice of hand held camera work. Many short films employ this technique for budget purposes, but here the shaky filming just serves to create more anxiety. While the editing seems a little distracting in portions of the film, the unique cinematography helps smooth over any inconsistencies.
From the first chaotic movements of Shannon through the woods, to the last static shot of the crotch of his pants, this film will shock you. It will horrify you. It will make you question everyone around you. And, for what it’s worth, Frank Bidart couldn’t be more pleased with the results.