CHILD OF GOD (letterboxd review)
This review reportedly contains spoilers.
No... your eyes doth not deceive you: I just gave a 5 out of 5 star review to a film directed by James Franco. This is no hyperbole or winking stunt — this film is just that provocative and powerful, thanks in no small part to the brilliant author of the source material.
CHILD OF GOD is a revelation, as is the performance of its lead Scott Haze. The fact that this kind of rawness actually made it to a screen with fidelity to the source material intact is astounding. *Major* props to James Franco for not only recognizing the fundamental truth of Cormac McCarthy's third novel, but for bringing it to life with such gusto (he not only directed and played a small part, but co-adapted with Vince Jolivette). For the record, I consider McCarthy to be our greatest living author, and he probably makes my Mount Rushmore of all-time literary heavyweights. It is obvious that Franco sees what I see in his work.
The film breaks down into three parts (as does the novel), which makes for a convenient three act structure amenable to film. Each of these parts progressively track Haze's Lester Ballard as he devolves into a true creature of violence and isolation. As the film opens, we find Lester an uneducated, unloved man-child who threatens the lives of the men who have come to sell off his dead father's foreclosed property... what transpires from there is a sight to behold; a sick spiral into the depths of mental illness and depravity unlike I have ever seen captured on film.
The film unfolds like the sickest of Grimm tales, set in a 1960's Tennessee that, save for the occasional finned sedan and flashlight, could be the 1800's. From the very get-go we are welcomed by Haze's most unsettling gaze and mouth gesticulations — this is a miscreant whose words often get stuck in his throat and he clicks his sharp-angled jaw and bellows in frustration to let them loose. Mere moments after the opening scene, we are welcomed by his bare ass *literally* shitting in the woods (and if that is not actual feces coming out of Haze's actual anus, this film deserves even more awards than I thought), then "wiping" his ass with a broken branch. This is true, elemental McCarthy at work, and Franco channels that vision with zero compromises. His shot selection is pure in each and every frame, the pacing and manner in which the film unfolds is shocking in its simplicity and eagerness to repel, the music/score is minimalistic and diegetic and never tries to inspire emotion, only evocation of mood and tone. Franco has peopled this film with real faces of the ugly and the downtrodden, which was a major turn on for this viewer who loathes the perfect teeth and powdered foreheads of typical players, especially in such a truculent, down home narrative as this. I really cannot say enough about the job James Franco has done here... this film is an absolute testament.
In CHILD OF GOD, theme and character are perfectly intertwined in the form of Haze's astounding turn as the aforementioned Lester Ballard. This sorry excuse of a human being is in fact a proxy for all mankind — the title of the film is no mistake, as is alluded to in one of the many, varied narrators' (another awesome device that stays true to McCarthy's novel) description of Lester as "a child of God much like yourself perhaps." As the saying goes: We are ALL God's children, and that includes the most depraved and profane among us... which Lester certainly is. If repeated scenes of necrophilia turn your stomach, you might want to shy away from this most provocative of films — or at least take in the gruesome spectacle through the space between your fingers. Lester is, in the form of one sick individual, all of us, all that mankind is capable of and therein lies the parable. He is at turns violent, aggressive, dangerous and profane... but at the same time he is lonely, misunderstood, denigrated and exiled, capable of great ingenuity and curiosity and even childlike playfulness. He is at equal turns capable of generosity and coddling (of an ironic, sick sort — such as when he buys a gift-wrapped red dress and other romantic effects for his paramour... a girl he found dead in a car, half-naked and under the body of her lover as they asphyxiated by way of carbon monoxide poisoning during the throes of passion) and the most vile, wretched activities known to man. By the third act Lester has fully devolved into a cave-dwelling psychopathic serial killer and routine necrophile — yet we still miraculously find ourselves rooting for him when he makes a triumphant escape from the clutches of a lynch mob who has stolen him away from the hospital in which he is recovering from the loss of his arm, and nearly his life (in a scene in which you just have to witness for yourself. Rarely has madness been so well rendered on screen, suffice to say).
I could go on but I feel I have spoiled and ruined enough already. You seriously owe it to yourself to watch this film, and to do so with an open mind that is ready to engage the themes Franco (by way of McCarthy) is meting out. Once more I must applaud the director and everyone involved, not least of all Scott Haze in one of the most profound and powerful transformative performances I have ever witnessed. Who is this man? How is he not a major star? Perhaps, if the world is at all just, he soon will be.
Final verdict, as if it needs to be stated:
MOST DEFINITELY SEE IT (unless you are a natural born prude, or easily rattled and disgusted by representations of true acts of depravity... but even then, you might need this film more than most)
PS - currently streaming on Netflix.