Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, James Franco’s Child of God is set to divide audiences and possibly be the most controversial film at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Lester Ballard is a social outcast. Living on the very fringe of society, surviving in an abandoned cabin and hunting wild animals to survive, he is somewhat misunderstood by the locals. His speech is almost indeterminable, his physical appearance is neglected and his behaviour is very often animalistic. A local tells us that he hasn’t been right since his father hung himself and the police warn him he can’t carry on living the way he is in that area. A character very much on the police’s radar, Lester is picked up and accused of raping a woman, which he says he did not do. Lester Ballad is a monster but he is the kind of monster who is immediately intriguing and even as we watch him perform indecent acts of necrophilia, we are still attracted to this feral man in one way or another, especially as we begin to see another side to him. Lester is an excellent target shooter and in an amusing scene at a fairground, wins himself three giant soft toys which he proceeds to proudly take back to his cabin and talk to caringly. This is an extremely complex character and Child of God follows Lester as he builds a strange family for himself. But his level of degradation heightens and we see what this monster is really capable of.
Scott Haze, who plays Lester Ballard, puts in the performance of a lifetime and was practically unrecognizable at the press conference following the screening of the film, a handsome well-groomed man. His physicality that he brings to the character is incredible, a strange and distinctive mouth sucking movement and an almost Neanderthal-like walk are never over acted. The degradation is obviously depicted through filthy clothes and dirty teeth but there is also a lot of saliva and a striking scene with excrement towards the beginning of the film. These may sound extreme, along with the necrophilia, but it never feels like it has been done for shock tactics, it is rather to enable us to see this fascinating character and strangely begin to understand him more.
Child of God explores the darker side of human nature, especially when a person is isolated from society. At times he is revolting, whereas other moments show an almost childlike innocent individual which becomes rather heart-breaking. He mumbles and rants to himself, and we wonder, how has he become like this? One scene where he is desperately trying to move the dead body of a beautiful young woman shows his perseverance and sheer determination for ‘company’, again we suddenly feel an affinity to him, but it just as quickly goes again.
Franco has masterfully directed an astounding performance from Haze and has successfully got the balance of monster and human just right. The music is also impressive, with upbeat banjo music cajoling us along for the ride. The film is divided into chapters and large white text fills the screen on a black background, introducing this “Child of God much like yourself perhaps”. Stylistically Franco claims he has been influenced by the Dardenne Brothers and Gus Van Sant in the way they shoot and the film utilises a roving handheld style at times. Apparently the book is loosely based on Ed Gein which also influenced Norman Bates in Psycho and it is difficult not to be reminded of these famous murderers while watching the film. But Lester still feels like a new and different character bringing far more subtle complexity to the screen.
Haze states his influences when developing the character of Lester as Heath Ledger’s Joker and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and whilst not quite up there with Bickle’s antihero, Lester Ballard is a fantastically intriguing and memorable character. Franco’s film has remained pretty loyal to McCarthy’s book although he chose to end the film a little earlier which means it is not such a bleak view as McCarthy’s and there is a sense of ambiguity. Upon why Franco chose to make this movie he stated that “isolation is a subject that comes up in a lot of the movies I’ve made, not consciously. Sometimes you are just struck by something”. Haze stated that working with Franco as the director was “the best experience I’ve had as an actor as he knows what it’s like. There is trust because of what he is like as an actor and a director”. Franco gave Haze complete freedom in his process and Haze gathered as much as he could when he spent 3 months in Tennessee, observing local people and developing the character of Lester.
Child of God is a mesmerizing and at times disturbing film but the combination of Franco and Haze works brilliantly and they have achieved a thought-provoking film that occasionally pushes the boundaries in order to depict a character that has few social boundaries. Lester Ballard is already a memorable cinematic character who will certainly stand the test of time.
Director: James Franco
Writer: Screenplay James Franco and Vince Jolivette, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Stars: Scott Haze, James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson
Runtime: 104 mins