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James Franco's Utterly Misguided Adaptation of Cormac McCarthy

What happens when a selfie-addicted celebrity takes on the darkest of American masters

RabbitBandini Productions

James Franco has been working hard to make it difficult for serious people to take him seriously. There's his promiscuity with projects unworthy of his talent, on both the big screen and small, including his starring role in the circus of social media, all those preposterous selfies he seems so proud of. There’s his literary posturing, short stories frozen in an embryonic phase, poetry so insipid it’s like listening to an oboe blown by an emphysemic. There’s his fetishizing of literature, films about Allen Ginsberg, Hart Crane, and the forthcoming Bukowski. There’s his self-loving stare on the movie poster for As I Lay Dying, a movie that might have been titled As Faulkner Lay Writhing in His Grave (Franco’s version of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is now in post-production). There’s his collection of MFAs and his near-publicity-stunt admittance to Yale University, which left some of us incapable of ever seeing ivy the same way again. One applauds Franco’s energy and ambition—in some cases there's nothing else to applaud—but it’s getting well nigh impossible to spot the line between this great actor’s devotion to art and this narcissist’s devotion to his own outsized ego.

With such an eagerness to prove himself literary it was no doubt inevitable that Franco would turn to Cormac McCarthy. It’s taken 41 years and a filmmaker of Franco’s particular fearlessness to put Child of God onto the screen because, although it’s McCarthy’s most filmable plot—taut and efficient, bloody and brief—the novel’s lead is a cross-dressing and murderous necrophile named Lester Ballard. Stripped of his property, cast-off in the hills of East Tennessee, a solitary ghoul beyond the grasp of god or law, Ballard enacts his otherness, his macabre agency in a world without rescue, a cosmos without redemption. He ravens the forest with a rifle, shelters in an abandoned shack, and becomes obsessed with the injustice of losing his property. The townspeople have always suspected his squalor of soul, his unholy appetites: The novel is punctuated by first-hand accounts of Ballard’s sinister ways and warped sense of communion. An expert marksman, he wins three stuffed animals at the shooting gallery of the local carnival and then treats them like children. When women go missing and police begin their search of the hills, Ballard flees underground into a system of caves where he arranges his coterie of corpses in a stone room both catacomb and boudoir. A spirit this diseased must descend to infernal depths, must dwell with the dead.

Franco’s script, written with Vince Jolivette, remains as loyal as possible to McCarthy’s novel. Franco and his cinematographer, Christina Voros, have pegged the proper aesthetic, the frigid and pitiless beauty of a landscape adverse to human happiness. They have a fine eye for the yellows, grays, and olive drabs of the East Tennessee hills in winter, the muddied pathways, the naked boles, the splayed reach of trees. The original score by Aaron Embry augments the tenor of the narrative when it doesn’t obtrude upon and tarnish that tenor. The beauteous Nina Ljeti gives the best portrayal of a dead girl you’ll ever see. You won’t mind Tim Blake Nelson sleepwalking through this one, doing a passable caricature of a backwoods sheriff, because the film belongs to Scott Haze as Lester Ballard. This is a virtuosic performance by Haze, one of uncommon concentration and imbued with a feral, frightful intensity. He’ll be nominated for every major award and if there’s any fairness left on earth he will win most of them. He has the eyes right—skewed and skeletal—and the gait, moving with “a constrained truculence,” and also the perplexed grind of the jaw just as McCarthy describes: “his thinly bristled jaw knots and slacks as if he were chewing but he is not chewing.” Haze gives Ballard a voice barely born, rarely intelligible, a slurred and ruined warble.

Film adaptations of McCarthy’s novels tend to generate powerhouse male performances—Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, Viggo Mortensen in The Road (though not Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses, a film of prettiness and horses but not much else)—and although Haze’s performance outstrips them all with its ardency, it also makes several missteps. There’s a suggestion of mental impairment in the garbled voice, and this serves to absolve Ballard of his evil—it begins to explain what must remain inexplicable. Haze’s Ballard is a noisy wastrel; he grunts, growls, and howls in an exacerbated expression of animality, but madness plays best in reticence. God is terrifying because God is silent; to be equally terrifying the child of God must aspire to an equal silence, must arrive at a place beyond superfluous sound.

Franco is determined to humanize Ballard in a misguided quest to make him likable, as if likability were a conduit to credibility and not just a pandering to audience members. Franco has written for Ballard a handful of sobbing close-ups, tears of abjection and dread. In another deviation from the novel, Ballard assassinates the stuffed animals he won at the carnival, weeping as he mumbles about having no friends. Franco has also excised the essential flood scene, the town submerged after a punishing rain—an intimation of divine reprisal, a plague upon these people for the transgressions of mankind. “I never knew such a place for meanness,” a woman says of her inundated town. McCarthy speaks of this locale as a “fabled waste,” but Franco’s realist, too-simplistic rendition denies the narrative this fabled and mythic register, and in doing so neuters much of the novel’s potency.

Worse, Franco demonstrates no cognizance of the spiritual malaise central to McCarthy’s novel. “Were there darker provinces of night he would have found them,” writes McCarthy of Ballard, and that must be read as an avowal of spiritual decay, as the “dark night of the soul” proclaimed by St. John of the Cross, except that Ballard’s night has no end. “Given charge,” McCarthy writes, “Ballard would have made things more orderly in the woods and in men’s souls.” Untether this narrative from its cognizance of spiritual malignancy and the enigma of evil and all you have is another madman stalking the hills. Make that madman a sobbing and sympathetic victim of friendlessness and you give insult to the narrative’s maker.                

Here is a pivotal passage from the novel, Ballard trying to ford a storm-gorged river:

He could not swim, but how would you drown him? His wrath seemed to buoy him up. Some halt in the way of things seems to work here. See him. You could say that he’s sustained by his fellow men, like you. Has peopled the shore with them calling to him. A race that gives suck to the maimed and the crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it. But they want this man’s life. He has heard them in the night seeking him with lanterns and cries of execration. How then is he borne up? Or rather, why will not these waters take him? 

Passages such as that reveal why McCarthy, like Faulkner, is so tough to translate to the screen. The lines, lyrically pitched and deeply interior, pressurized with visceral and spiritual chaos, embody the imaginative spirit of the story in a manner no image can duplicate. McCarthy writes of Ballard’s “disastrous wrath,” this “figure of wretched arrogance,” those “clefts of bedlam” all around him, but how does a filmmaker make those necessary descriptions manifest? Reading a McCarthy novel one is a participant in the dynamics of his imagination and a reveler in the language which conveys that imagination. In the cinema, though, one is merely a viewer, a consumer of those dynamics now shorn of their complexity and force. McCarthy’s berserk masterpiece, Blood Meridian, will prove impossible to film for the same reasons: Its cavernous interiority, its phantasmagoric wildness, its vagaries of spirit and grapple with damnation. One might as well try to film Dante. Franco, in other words, has waded out of his depth with McCarthy, and so is forced into spirit-stomping simplification. One wishes he would stick to acting—few of his generation do it better—instead of attempting to be the filmic ambassador for American literature. 

In the press packet for the film, Franco’s grammar-challenged director’s statement speaks of Ballard as “an outcast we can all relate to,” a man who embodies “what is inside all of us.” Let me remind everyone that in addition to having intercourse with corpses, Ballard at one point burns a baby alive and later dons a wig “fashioned whole from a dried human scalp.” Franco makes every lagging high schooler’s mistake of believing that the success or failure of a narrative is contingent upon his ability to “relate” to it, a facile apprehension of literary character, and especially of one as depraved as Lester Ballard. There better be nothing remotely relatable about this aberration, nothing of him “inside all of us,” or else civilization would everywhere be a daily hecatomb. The appeal of Lester Ballard—and of literary characters as various as Job and Achilles, as Medea and Raskolnikov—lies precisely in the opposite of our preparedness to relate, or to “identify,” as students like to say. Ballard doesn’t confirm our own human identity, doesn’t serve as an echo chamber for our own selfhood; rather, he upends our conceptions of ourselves, upsets our cozy belief in the relative similarities among our species, and reveals to us what breeds of lethal otherness crouch in the dark. 

Franco has wisely relegated his screen time to only a few minutes—he plays one of the vigilantes who capture Ballard and demand to know where he has hidden the corpses of his victims—and you’ll strain to see him in the shadows. The cauterized conclusion of Franco’s film fits with his erroneous conception of Ballard as someone worth saving, someone who has earned his liberation through ostracism. McCarthy knows otherwise; the novel ends with Ballard moribund in a psychiatric hospital, sentenced to a sort of purgatory. The name “Ballard” is charged with the echo of “bastard,” yes, but also of “ballad”—his song is one of malison, of inevitable destruction in a world too surd for forgiveness. Ballard is among McCarthy’s most compelling creations because, much like the Judge in Blood Meridian, his hungers oscillate from the elemental to the perverted, because he is too pure for heaven and too profane for hell, and because he is the child of an insane god deaf to every benediction.