Film Review: Child of God

Depravity abounds in this James Franco-directed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, which despite a committed performance by Scott Haze proves a one-note endurance test.

James Franco wallows around in the backwoods muck with his latest directorial effort, Child of God, an adaptation of the 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel about a psychotic hick named Lester (Scott Haze) whose 1960s Tennessee life is defined by ever-abhorrent behavior. An opening close-up of Lester, his eyes turned upward in a menacing glare that invokes memories of many animalistic Stanley Kubrick protagonists, immediately establishes the feral nature of the story’s main character, who is then shown wildly objecting to the sale of his father’s farm. Split into three chapters, and embellished with a few instances of onscreen text as well as occasional narration from a variety of unidentified speakers, Lester’s subsequent saga is one of amplifying madness, as he sets up new residence in an abandoned woodland cabin, spies on the man who bought his daddy’s home, and gets his rocks off peeping on kids having sex in remotely parked cars.

With spittle flying from his mouth, snot dangling from his nose, and slurry speech emanating from his filthy, beard-framed mouth, Lester exudes unhinged wildness, and his preference for groaning, growling and howling further solidifies him as more rabid dog than civilized man. Voiceover exposition reveals that Lester’s father abandoned him via suicide, though otherwise Child of God provides scant background on its center of attention, content to simply gaze with horrified fascination at Lester, whom Haze embodies with a full-throated lunacy that’s consistently captivating, at least until his screaming-crazy routine reveals itself to be one-note. At that point—which, admittedly, is about a third of the way through the story—the film turns monotonous, even as Lester indulges in increasingly wretched behavior that pushes the film into grim, sadistic territory.

That devolution into depravity commences in earnest via a scene in which Lester finds two dead lovers on the side of the road in their car—a discovery that spurs him to have sex with the woman’s corpse, and then carry her back to his cabin, where he proceeds to continue violating her, albeit after buying her a new dress and some makeup so he can stage an imaginary “date” with her. If necrophilia sounds like a dismal narrative development, it’s merely the catalyst for Lester’s wholehearted embrace of his own primal urges, which—no matter the efforts of the local sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) and his deputy (Jim Parrack), nor a lynch mob led by Franco himself—eventually turn him into a literal caveman. Like many McCarthy tales, Child of God proves an ugly portrait of man’s inherent brutishness, and the inability of God or society to fundamentally tame that nature. Yet despite Haze’s commitment to his barbaric role, as well as Franco’s bleakly detached direction, the film makes its primary point so early on that it soon finds itself with nothing much to say—and, consequently, winds up becoming little more than a tedious and meandering bit of psycho-hillbilly performance art.

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