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Review: 'Child of God' finds director James Franco still cutting his teeth

James Franco's 11th directed feature is a noble but sloppy adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God," about a feral mountain man (Scott Haze).

Scott Haze plays a howling mountain man in James Franco's "Child of God." Credit: Well Go USA Scott Haze plays a howling mountain man in James Franco's "Child of God."
Credit: Well Go USA

‘Child of God’
Director: James Franco
Stars: Scott Haze, Tim Blake Nelson
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

Without anyone but film festivalgoers and snarky journalists noticing, James Franco has amassed a considerable directorial résumé. “Child of God” is the actor-author-poet-painter-filmmaker’s 11th feature (with seven other shorts in there too) and one of the first to get a sizeable release. He doesn’t lack nerve: Like last year’s adaptation of “As I Lay Dying,” “Child of God” tackles a novel (rightly) presumed unfilmable. This time it’s Cormac McCarthy’s reliably bleak-o-rama sketch of a feral mountain man who does little but rape and murder the members of society attempting to tame him.

The book’s power lies primarily in the coarse, flowing prose and its willingness to see its worldview to its absurdist end point. That’s not to say it can’t be filmed. (After all, McCarthy has a Best Picture winner under his belt, plus last year’s undervalued “The Counselor.”) And Franco’s own work isn’t immune to film: Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto,” from his short story collection, has fine passages. For a brief spell, his “Child of God” seems like it might even work. Franco pal Scott Haze gives his all as Lester, a grunting, howling anti-hero introduced recklessly waving a rifle while ordering an auction party to get off his dead pappy’s land. He and the film are dirty, unkempt, even underformed.

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Thing is, McCarthy’s prose gives the illusion of shagginess — he doesn’t use quotation marks around dialogue and he regularly throws in incomplete sentences — when in actuality it’s tightly controlled, whittled down to the bone. Franco’s film, by contrast, is sloppy and borderline amateurish. His handheld cameras dodge and weave, but that’s all they do. Good handheld requires stealth craft; this is just someone flailing with a camera in their hands.

There’s not a single bold, arresting image in the film, nothing that seems thought-through. Long stretches find Haze scrounging about, wailing as he traverses harsh landscapes or falls into ponds. These are theoretically impressive, but in truth they look like someone’s home movie recreation of great lit — as though Franco was in his backyard making his dream movie on the cheap, only with the occasional famous actor (here, Tim Blake Nelson and Franco himself as a lyncher).

Like Franco’s “Blood Meridian” test reel he put online, it takes what looked vivid and wild in the reader’s head and shrinks it down to something tiny and unimaginative. Franco may one day make a great film; he certainly has the ambition. But he looks like he’s still cutting his teeth. The main lesson he can glean from making “Child of God”: He’s not Cormac McCarthy.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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