James Franco’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel Child of God is an unflinching, deeply disturbing portrait of one man’s descent into savagery as a result of his continued existence outside of society. The antagonist of the piece is one Lester Ballard who is brought to terrifying life by Scott Haze in an unhinged performance of such raw, feral intensity that it’s at once difficult to watch and at the same time impossible to tear your eyes away from. He delivers an audacious, recklessly brave performance, utterly bereft of anything resembling vanity which provides the very hook upon which the success of the movie hangs.
What's truly remarkable given the depths of degradation Ballard plumbs is that the movie manages to conjure up no small amount of sadness at this man’s situation and rapidly deteriorating mental condition. An outcast with no moral compass to guide him, Ballard, in an effort to stave off the extreme isolation of his existence, populates his world with a menagerie of cuddly toys which he converses with and treats as his friends. Then he comes across the body of a young woman and, driven by his intense loneliness, events soon begin a rapid descent into more repellent, taboo razing territory with echoes of the Ed Gein case which rocked 1950's America.
Other characters drift in and out of the movie but Ballard remains the central focus throughout. Tim Blake Nelson shows up as the local Sheriff and his presence is, as always, welcome. But it could be argued that besides Ballard the only other character that gets any real screen time is the mountain landscape within which the movie is set. Cinematographer Christina Voros captures the beauty of Sevier County, Tennessee where the movie is set but also communicates the bleak, unforgiving nature of the location and this in turn provides crucial insight into exactly how difficult and downright cruel Ballard’s life must have been. As a result his fractured mental state treads closer to being at least understandable if not acceptable or forgivable.
This is this first of James Franco’s directorial efforts that I’ve experienced. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. This is difficult material and the end result reveals a director with considerable skill and integrity. I’m unfamiliar with the source material (something I intend to change soon) but having read some of the author’s other work I suspect that Child of God is an honest reflection of the books themes. This is a movie that is entirely without compromise and Franco tackles it head on with a fearlessness that is no doubt borne out of respect for McCarthy’s novel. His refusal to water down his vision to make it easier for a mainstream audience to digest is worthy of applause. This is about as far from a typical Hollywood movie as I’ve seen in some time.
Overall Child of God gets my highest recommendation. It's as jaw-dropping as it is disturbing. I have no doubt that it will polarise opinion, with some finding the journey too guelling an ordeal to stomach, but approached armed with the knowledge that what you’re about to witness is unpleasant, unsettling and at times almost painful to watch there's much here to respect if not love. Fans of extreme cinema should definitely be making this a priority. James Franco has proven here that he’s one of the most interesting emergent talents of recent years and in Scott Haze we have an actor who is willing to take himself to the very edge in pursuit of his art. I expect great things from both in the future. Child of God is a stunning achievement.