Film Review: As I Lay Dying
James Franco has pulled off a devilishly difficult literary adaptation with this faithful yet cinematically vibrant version of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Like the multiple English master's degree holder he is, Franco, with co-scripter Matt Rager, has wrestled to the ground the author’s fragmented, multi-voiced tale of the ordeal an impoverished Mississippi family endures to bury its matriarch and emerged with something many have tried but few have delivered, a worthy screen adaptation of Faulkner. A rarified art film all the way, one that will divide even brainy students and specialized cinema types, this is by a long way the best of the eight features the mind-bogglingly prolific actor-director-writer has made and is, as such, a big surprise.
For the average citizen, the 1930 novel is no easy read, and it often takes college students at least a couple of passes to make sense of everything, so parsimoniously does Faulkner dole out key information about identities, relationships, crucial events past and present. In addition, the narrative is presented through the perspectives of 15 different characters, from those of a little kid to the dead woman herself, assuring at least a degree of confusion and the need to page back and double-check details from time to time.
Just as formidable is the bare narrative itself, which concerns an effort of almost Biblical severity and suffering endured by the dirt-poor Bundren clan as it fashions a homemade wooden coffin for Addie, the mother of four sons and one daughter, and takes it by wagon down dirt roads and across a high river to a distant town. No one makes it to the destination in quite the same condition in which they left.
So extreme is the hardship endured, and so stultifying the dull repetitions of physical labor, that one might have thought the only film directors capable of reimagining the story for the screen would have been Bela Tarr or the Dardenne Brothers. But Franco, employing diverse cinematic techniques from split screen (mostly early on) to direct-to-camera address, makes the Bundrens’ time of trial more immediately coherent than it is on the page without disrespecting Faulkner’s oblique style.
Before Addie is even dead, strong-bodied son Cash (Jim Parrack) is sawing away outside their ramshackle rural cabin to prepare for what is clearly imminent. A rainstorm rolls in and he still keeps at it, while wild, perpetually angry son Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green) ropes and tames a horse and son Darl (Franco) drives the wagon off on a questionable errand that upsets his ineffectual, gape-mouthed pa Anse (Tim Blake Nelson). Teen daughter Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly) tends to her mother, while cherubic young son Vardaman (Brady Permenter) struggles to carry a huge catfish he’s somehow come by.
The images and impressions are doled out quickly, sometimes in duplicate or opposition to one another but not, happily, in an academic way; it all flows nicely while gently dispensing morsels about family secrets. (Some of the kids have different fathers, and Dewey Dell may have a condition to deal with.)
Once Addie passes away, she’s quickly placed in the neatly made coffin for the trip to Jefferson, which Anse insists upon and might not have been so difficult if the bridge across the river hadn’t been wiped out by the rising currents from the recent rains. Bad judgment and general bungling lead to disaster all around, especially for Cash, who has to endure two days of travel in a spring-less wagon riding atop his mother’s coffin in the sun with his shattered lower leg in a concrete-covered splint. No big issue, he confidently says.
After fleeing a dreadful barn fire while staying overnight at a farm, they finally arrive in town, although the stench from the coffin makes them very unwelcome by the locals. Still, they stay long enough to tend to some diverse essential business, mostly of a dubious nature.
It’s a strange and loaded tale, to be sure, one that never had the makings of a popular film for a wide public but which, for connoisseurs of literary adaptations and cinematic challenges, poses significant interest. Franco’s storytelling is confident and sure-handed, both with the camera, which, in the capable hands of Christina Voros, roams around to capture privileged moments, and the actors, who all seem to have seized their characters with their entire beings.
Lending eerie ambiance is an electronic score by Tim O’Keefe that ranges from the atonal to the purely atmospheric.