Child of God

0 2.5 out of 5 stars
James Franco
Starring: Scott Haze, Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Parrack, James Franco
James Franco, Vince Jolivette
Duration: 105 minutes
Release Date:
August 1, 2014
MPAA Rating:

For James Franco's latest trick, watch him show you what it looks like when you take a dump. With real excrement.

With Child of God, an in-your-face adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's seriously fucked-up 1973 novel, Franco, for once, proves that his behind-the-camera abilities consist of more than simply pointing the camera at his actors as they recite wannabe-poetic babble (see: The Broken Tower, As I Lay Dying). Here, the multi-hyphenate uses that camera to capture all varieties of grotesqueness. He dares you to look away as Child of God's leading man, Scott Haze, gives a ferociously committed and feral performance as Lester Ballard, a repulsive shell of a man skulking around the woods of Tennessee's Sevier County in the early 1960s.

OK, that's not entirely accurate. Actually, Franco dares you to turn away from Scott Haze's bare ass. Five minutes into Child of God, Lester's marauding around the Tennessee wilderness, hunting for game and spewing incoherent gibberish. Because even social misfits can't ignore Mother Nature, Lester makes a pit stop against a tree, squats down, and unloads a log of feces onto the dirt. Because James Franco hopes to be considered a provocateur, he zooms in on Haze's ass as the discharge happens. Franco pulls back, thankfully, when it's time for his actor to wipe himself with a stick. It's the actor-turneddirector's way of saying, "Yeah, this movie's going for all the realism."

It wouldn't come as a surprise to hear that Franco took inspiration from shock auteurs like, say, John Waters, who boldly smeared himself into cinema's history books by having someone really eat dog poop in the midnight movie classic Pink Flamingos (1972). But when Waters used fecal matter to shock and awe, it worked because the film as a whole was a calculated middle-finger to conformity and Hollywood; in Child of God, Franco's insistence on showing Lester Ballard's derriere excretion is just another overindulgent artistic ploy from the reigning king of artistic indulgence.

Too much of Child of God has that same for-the-hell-of-it feel. McCarthy's Child of God book is a meditation on isolation and degenerate behavior that's not for the weak of stomach. Lester Ballard, among other vile acts, murders women, runs around firing a rifle while dressed in ladies' clothing, and has sex with a young female suicide victim's corpse. He also brings her cadaver back to his cabin, dresses it in fancy store-bought outfits, and talks dirty to the stiff. Which all happens in Franco's movie, too, but without the benefit of McCarthy's tough but elegantly descriptive prose. As filmed by Franco, Child of God the movie is merely an episodic look at a backwoods delinquent who digs necrophilia and wipes his butt with sticks. Why does Lester masturbate outside of cars while lovers get it on inside the vehicles? Or shut a dead woman's eyelids before fondling her cold breasts? No reason—it's just, in theory, tough to watch. With each gratuitous close-up shot of Haze panting as Lester bumps uglies with the un-breathing, Franco's essentially poking at your eyes with that crap-covered stick.

The stick is, however, colored with one distinct silver lining. Child of God isn't a great movie, but it's definitely a monstrous showcase for Scott Haze, Franco's current muse. To authentically embody Lester's animalism, Haze prepped for a year before shooting by living off of fish and sleeping in bat-riddled caves. His dedication to nailing Lester's truly revolting grit is Child of God's saving grace. With his top set of teeth always on display, like a crazed woodchuck, Haze doesn't speak his dialogue so much as push it out through his chompers. Instead of screaming, he snarls and grows loudly. The character is part Cro-Magnon man and part rabid dog. Haze, on the other hand, is a holy-shit revelation. He sells every vile thing Franco asks him to do, including the task of earning sympathy immediately after some profane pillow talk with his corpse bride: "You want nasty things done to you, huh?" When Lester cries while helplessly watching his expired lover burn un-alive, Haze almost makes you want to hug the poor bastard.

But then, of course, you remember he's the same guy who, not too long before, rubbed a small piece of wood across his brown-streaked bottom cheeks. That potential hug becomes a request for a barf bag. Franco isn't a good enough director to elevate Lester beyond being a redneck freakshow attraction, despite the fact that Haze's insane transformation into a human cesspool is the best thing Franco will probably ever put on film.

In Child of God's worst trick of all, its director has reduced one of the year's best performances to a shit joke.

Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who clearly isn't a fan of feces as a storytelling device. He tweets here.