Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Child Of God

Directed by: James Franco

Produced by: Caroline Aragon
Vince Jolivette
Miles Levy

Screenplay by: James Franco
Vince Jolivette

Based on: Child Of God by Cormac McCarthy
Starring: Scott Haze
Tim Blake Nelson
James Franco
Jim Parrack
Nina Ljeti
Brian Lally

Music by: Aaron Embry

Cinematography by: Christina Voros

Editing by: Curtiss Clayton

Studio(s): RabbitBandidi Productions
Made In Film-Land

Distributed by: Signature Entertainment (United Kingdom)
Spotlight Pictures (International)

Release date(s): August 31, 2013 (Venice Film Festival)
April 28, 2014 (United Kingdom)
August 1, 2014 (United States, limited)
Running time: 104 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: N/A

Box-office revenue: $39, 324 (domestic gross only)

Right well, I have finally reached the last review for the month of October. In typical fashion, I've been backed up for reasons both within and out of my personal control. After this review, I'll post a review for the month of October and then proceed onto November. If it's any consolation to my untimely, belated takes on the latest movies, Fury and Nightcrawler will be my next posted reviews, and there will be a few others to be looked at before November is over and done with. So, for all the latest and greatest regarding the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for review is Child Of God, James Franco's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 1973 novel. James Franco is one of the few contemporary people in the film industry who has managed successfully to build the reputation of a cult figure. Rejecting in many ways the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, he famously in 2006 reenrolled in UCLA as an English major and has continued his education since then, and in his film work has since immersed himself in the palettes the Beat Generation and the great American writers. After starring as Allen Ginsberg in Howl, he has written and directed a biopic on poet Hart Crane (2011's The Broken Tower), two adaptations of William Faulkner (2013's As I Lay Dying and 2014's The Sound And The Fury) and has an upcoming biopic on Charles Bukowski. For those of you who don't know, Cormac McCarthy adaptations and his work on the big screen are one hell of a mixed bag to put it lightly. Billy Bob Thorton's adaptation of All The Pretty Horses was so severely butchered by the studio that at the time he made the decision to never direct again, but then the next adaptation was Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country For Old Men, a veritable masterpiece and one of the best films made since the turn of the century (and the inaugural winner of The Clockwork Award for Best Film from me, no less!). John Hillcoat's The Road was also a highly admirable and moving piece of work, but then last year we got Ridley Scott's The Counsellor, which was written by McCarthy and was for all intents and purpose a disastrous piece of work. It's obvious that in the case of McCarthy, the right artist needs to be working with the right material in order to bring his distinct flavour of literature successfully onto the big screen. This being Franco's first adaptation (his name has been linked to the much-mooted Blood Meridian adaptation), I bought it out of interest to see what someone else could do with McCarthy's source material. Child Of God is set in 1960s Sevier County, Tennessee, and follows Lester Ballard (Scott Haze), a solitary and occasionally violent young man who exists outside society, with very little human interaction, who recedes inside of himself, descending into criminal acts and personal degradation. It's that simple a premise. Capiche?

To start off with the good, however you feel about the character, it cannot be denied that lead actor Scott Haze throws himself into the part of Lester Ballard. I'm not the type of person to be won over by method acting trickery (Haze, in preparation for the part, lost forty-five pounds and went as far as sleeping in caves, similar to the extremities of Ballard's lifestyle), but Haze immerses himself completely into the skin of Ballard. Haze has clearly worked on a specific dialectical style and vocal delivery, and in terms of body language, his Ballard has a distinctive cadence in his posture, stooped over a little and moving around with slight surges. Even just looking at him, just a wretched and absolutely haggard shell of a man, Haze is never anything less than legitimate in his portrayal of Lester Ballard. I also thought some of the editing was well done. The movie, like the book, is split into separate parts, and bookending them are these very striking title cards which set the scene for what is about to follow. These pop up on a number of different occasions throughout the film, such as the opening scene, with Lester having a dispute over his land being sold during and after a stint in jail. They can have quite a jarring effect when used properly. Finally, in his role as a director I have to respect what James Franco has done here. This is by no means an easy source text, and yet Franco sticks to his guns. He remains abundantly faithful to McCarthy's novel, almost to a fault (more of which in a bit), driving the film forward with conviction and authorial intent. Even with inherent faults, there remains still things to admire about Child Of God.

"Inherent faults" was how I began that last sentence, and it is how I shall begin this next paragraph, because I do feel there are things about this film that would just make it nigh-on impossible to make a successful picture. Part of the problem is the source text itself. Child Of God is one Cormac McCarthy's lesser works, but even still has moments of insight because of the Pulitzer Prize winner's flair for writing. Lester Ballard is an alienating character, but even in his worst moments in the novel, there is a slight sympathy for his self-degredation. Unlike the disturbing activities in the novel, which are merely in our imagination and thus accentuated by proxy, we are forced to watch all of these things. We see Lester take a shit in the woods, at which point I kind of knew I was in for the proverbial long haul, masturbate besides a car where inside a couple is having sex, he himself copulating with a corpse/makeshift bride: I can handle unpleasant material in the movies (I count among my favourite films Taxi Driver, Blue Velvet, Festen and Audition), but this just seemed to overt to be getting across any point that couldn't be done with a little more tact. Also, notwithstanding the subject matter, it's a very ugly-looking film. I don't know if this is an aesthetic thing, Christina Voros' cinematography, the production design or all three, but by God does this film look hideous. I remarked upon the film's consistency, well, in this department it certainly stands out. There seems to be no differentiation between the lighting of interior or exterior scenes, for all have the same tonal palette of banality, almost resembling the most bland of wallpaper patterns. The score as well is also rather a nuisance. Not that Aaron Embry suffers the fate of becoming a member of the EHO (Emotional Heartstrings Orchestra), but rather that the music consists of the most generic retreads of typically 'Southern' folk sounds. Taken alongside the stereotypical characters, such as Sheriff Fate, Deputy Cotton, and Jerry, the leader of a lynch mob played by writer-director Franco in a small part, it's any wonder that there is a continuing perpetuation of the idea that those from the American South are all uneducated hicks and hillbillies!

These things being said, I can't get overly annoyed at Child Of God. It is by no means an offensively bad picture. It boasts a great central performance from Scott Haze, who gets deep inside the troubling protagonist Lester Ballard. Some of the editing choices are also good, used at times to jarring effect. Also, I respect James Franco's strength of conviction to faithfully admit an admittedly tough source text with true authorial intent. Nevertheless, it doesn't change the fact that the movie as a whole is a misfire. The novel's content simply does not transfer well to the screen and brings with it inherent flaws. Notwithstanding the subject matter, it is also a rather ugly looking picture, and the score by Aaron Embry brings to mind stereotypically yodelling hicks and other such crude depictions of the American South. Admirable in some regards, but inherently flawed in others.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 4.3/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Ailohcnalem Lauteprep.

 (Beware of all marketing for this film!)

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