A Cave Dweller’s Downward Spiral
When the title card Child of God first appears, it’s stamped over a man, who has just been walloped by an axe to the head, writhing and growling in pain. His name is Lester Ballad and he embodies Cormac McCarthy’s eponymous novel as a mess of a man. A shotgun is stapled to his right hand but the novel describes him, “a child of God much like yourself perhaps.” The suggestion is chilling. How much different are we from this raging, incomprehensible character? How much are we responsible for him?
Much of our social, reflexive questioning in James Franco’s adaptation of McCarthy’s disturbing story is because of Lester. He’s played hauntingly intense by Scott Haze who gurgles and moans and manages to blend our hatred of this roaming body with dollops of empathy. Foraging in the wooded 1960s Tennessee Mountains, Lester lives without parents and soon enough without his farm, which is auctioned off at the start of the film to a mob of locals. He runs toward them waving his gun and screaming that the grounds they bid on are his property. This becomes a perpetuating frustration, but his unbridled demeanor quickly yields the blow to his skull, knocking him into further delusion.
Like most McCarthy novels, which deal with post-apocalyptic themes of isolation and violence, their transfer on screen can be painful to endure. Child of God is no exception. This is not a pleasant watch nor does the film, which often staggers into fades of black, try to be. Franco, along with screenwriter Vince Jolivette, separates the story devotedly into three sections, and each one examines Lester in more disheveled fashion, his interactions with the outside world rapidly decreasing.
The remnants of sanity he still conveys are spewed toward a wary sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) and his deputy (Jim Parrack) as well as some large stuffed animals he drags around. One townsman narrates that Lester could snipe a spider out of its web, and his ominous marksmanship is displayed moments after at a small carnival, where his shooting skills land him his large furry prizes. Later, in a fit of now accustomed slobbering rage, those childlike rewards turn into his own targets.
But his exploits are more perverse than conversing with cheap dolls. The uglier incidents include fulfilling carnal impulses with deceased women, piling up a collection in a morbid location. At one point he purchases a dress for one of them just to rip it off. Haze seems to channel Jack Nicholson from The Shining, hunched and self-possessed, crazed and entranced. Its backbreaking work made more impressive because he must carry an unflinching, vulgar film like this. It’s body-breaking work.
Franco, who shows up near the film’s end, keeps the camera close through all of this, maneuvering the bush and trees just as sloppily as Lester weaves through them. Child of God, much like David Rosenthal’s A Single Shot, thrives in the authenticity of its small backwoods neighborhood just as much as it becomes a taxing meditation of its quiet, somber bluegrass-fiddling persona. You sense Franco, following his last film As I Lay Dying, is content to worry strictly about atmosphere, following McCarthy’s plot dutifully so as not to scatter his focus. With Franco you get a performance and you get a feeling. Right now, you just don’t get much more.