Walking over an inebriated man passed out on the sidewalk or staring at the woman who hung around campus with red lipstick all over her face, a lingering passage comes to mind— we are all God’s children. The thought never comes to mind to ask these creatures how they are doing or what brought them to this strange state.
Cormac McCarthy dealt with this subject in his novel Child of God, detailing a man without an existence whose only solace are things no longer living. McCarthy stunningly captured how a man becomes a creature, strangely the devil and evil forces have nothing to do with it, just the tearing down of a human one layer at a time. This is not a subject matter most people would want to read about let alone watch onscreen, but James Franco in all his ADD grandeur has made it so.
Anticipating that the film could not be financed in a traditional manner Franco made the movie out of pocket. The budget was sparse, the actors were friends and the location was West Virginia; nothing about this film (the main actor Scott Haze isolated himself by sleeping in a cabin and on some occasions caves in order to prepare) is particularly pleasant.
Child of God begins with Lester Ballard’s (Scott Haze) family home being auctioned off and in his distress Lester screams to the point of recklessness as he shoots at the crowd. Lester must now roam the forest looking for a home, but just when you think this is one of those stories where good things happen to poor unfortunate souls, we get a shot of Lester squatting and shitting with a large twig as his only toilet paper.
Once the viewer resigns them-self to the fact that this is not going to be an entertaining film (nobody takes their clothes off unless rape is involved) one can truly watch the film. A character study where the only moment of whimsy occurs when Lester wins stuffed animals at a local carnival, only to shoot them in a blaze of Styrofoam balls several scenes later. Sure the shots aren’t that sturdy and there are some annoying artistic motifs (the edits seem a bit choppy) but Scott Hazes’ performance helps you forget all that.
Watching Haze in the lobby before the films premier at the New York Film Festival standing by trepidatiously as the audience (none of them knew who he was) made their way to the theater, was intriguing. Haze was wearing a suit which indicated he must be in the film, he also looked a bit frightened, what will they think? Will this change my career?
Through Hazes’ performance we see the making of a man into a “monster,” as Truffaut’s The 400 Blows captured the depleting effects of loveless parents, the depletion of the mind is present here (don’t worry I am not comparing Franco to Truffaut, bitch please). With the career changing performance clearly defined, the rest of the film is too murky to put into words, Child of God just doesn’t get under your skin, it infects it. In some ways it’s a well-crafted film with the wilds of West Virginia racing through the shots, and in others it’s the Grad School performance piece you had to sit through where a student gets naked, stands in front of the classroom and calls it art (true story).
Unfortunately man’s insanity cannot be categorized into the Devil or God box, the many layers of Lester began with a root whose branches have been severed. Ultimately we can learn a lot from McCarthy’s novel and Franco’s vision of it, mental illness is something that can be controlled to an extent, but we choose to wrestle with it rather than treat it.