Given how productive he has been, James Franco has an oddly nebulous profile as a filmmaker. His IMDb listing reveals that he has directed 10 features solo, and several in collaboration—most prominently Interior. Leather Bar., with Travis Mathews—and currently has a film about Charles Bukowski and a version of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury completed, plus another co-directed documentary in postproduction. The fact that he keeps so ridiculously busy (like most people, I can’t help attaching that adverb)—the fact that he’s a prolific director along with being an actor (on stage and screen), fiction writer, performance artist, hawker of Gucci perfume, and, for all I know, virtuoso euphonium player—makes it all too easy to overlook what he actually does behind the camera. In all honesty, I have some catching up to do on Franco’s CV, so I couldn’t say how his new release Child of God compares to early works like Good Time Max (07) or 2005’s The Ape (about an aspiring novelist’s relationship with a gorilla in a Hawaiian shirt).

Child of God

Still, I can take a guess and suggest that Child of God probably brings Franco closer to the primate realm than he has been since The Ape. And I can say for sure that the film stays quite close to the mode and to the thematic territory of his adaptation last year of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Child of God is an adaptation of the 1973 novel by Cormac McCarthy—the most Faulknerian of latter-day American novelists, as much in his subjects and settings as in his use of language. Franco’s As I Lay Dying was a serious, high-minded venture, but rather disappointing. It faithfully visualized the content and the formal devices of one of modernism’s most notoriously difficult texts but, for all the split-screen photography and fragmentation, came out a little studious and inert—an honourable homage rather than a vivid response to the book’s challenges.

As a teaser for the theatrical opening of Child of God, Franco has released something that in its way is similarly earnest and a little solemn—a showreel of some 30 minutes that he shot three or four years ago in preparation for his intended adaptation of McCarthy’s Old West epic Blood Meridian. This book has long been the Holy Grail of American adaptation and, to be fair, it would probably take Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, and Erich von Stroheim working jointly to capture the text’s visionary extremity, suggestive of Breughel among the sagebrush. While it’s unfair to judge on the basis of this rough sketch—an extended flashback introduced by a narration from a character played by Scott Glenn—his no-frills footage is atmospheric, with an authentically dusty, sun-baked tinge of desert and desperation. But it’s again a little ruminative and literary, and doesn’t make you slaver to see a feature-length extension.

With Child of God, however, Franco—together with his co-writer, long-term associate Vince Jolivette—has come up with something distinctive that both captures the atmosphere of McCarthy’s neo-Gothic universe and suggests a consolidation on the director’s As I Lay Dying. Published in 1973, and set in the 1960s in Tennessee, the film is about a deeply disadvantaged, and increasingly deranged young man, played here by Scott Haze. As a voiceover narrator tells us at the start (one of five different voices in the film, together forming a kind of chorus), “His name was Lester Ballard—a child of God, much like yourself perhaps.” Lester is first seen staring with fiery, suspicious, and altogether feral eyes out through the slats of a barn, just as he later stares between prison bars or out of a cave: he’s by nature a starer, and a scarer. He comes raging and roaring out of the barn to shoo local folk off land with which he might once have had a connection—“Move! Move! Move! This is not your property!” Territory is one of the film’s big themes, for Lester, a perennially homeless pariah, is constantly staking out temporary rudimentary dwellings.

Child of God</p>

Lester starts as an object of social horror, the Abject personified, then goes all the way in his career as an American bogeyman. Forever hunted down and moved along by the Sheriff of Sevier County (Tim Blake Nelson), he one day finds a young couple dead in a car by the side of the road. Clambering on top of the woman, he begins an enthusiastic career as a necrophile, afterwards hauling her body into the woods, setting up “home” with her in an abandoned barn. He shyly goes shopping to buy his beloved a dress, which he puts on her for a coy tête-à-tête. The evening starts as a gently grotesque parody of old-fashioned courtship—“I’d be honored if I could have one kiss”—before inescapably turning obscene. Yet there’s a sort of poignancy running through even Lester’s most horrific acts.

I haven’t read McCarthy’s novel, though I sense that Franco is taking a cue from the title and from that line introducing Lester as being just like you and me (and all us other “hypocrite readers,” to quote Baudelaire). Lester is indeed a child—an orphan, seemingly traumatized by seeing his father hanged, and who knows what else. If you follow the religious implications of his being a “son of God,” then Lester is genuinely an anti-Christ—a parodic martyr, forsaken by his maker, constantly tested, embodying all humanity’s ugliest excesses on our behalf. From garden-variety imbecile, Lester—his myth narrated by that voiceover chorus—becomes a murderous troglodyte, a modern backwoods cyclops.

The premise sounds familiar, and when Lester bursts out of the woods like a shambling rag doll in his victims’ dresses, you may feel a frisson of déjà vu—another grotesque to add to the bloody gallery along with Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill, Leatherface, and all the other avatars of Ed Gein. What’s impressive is that this very simple film manages to take us into Lester’s world—not into his head, it’s too detached for that, but certainly into the universe immediately around him. If the film, with its longueurs and abrupt jumps, suggests a lack of design, it’s because the narrative attunes itself to the repetitive, disconnected temporality of Lester’s existence: DP Christina Voros’s free-roaming camera lumbers around after him, as if he were its documentary subject.

Child of God

The effect is to give Lester dignity, not to glamorize him—and to make us understand him a little, or at least more than he’s understood by the likes of the Sheriff (a cold-eyed Nelson, giving his best performance, because his least showy). Lester comes alive because Scott Haze inhabits him so fully, playing him as something like a forest animal whose body and mouth aren’t made for human gestures and speech. We hear him roaring through teeth that sound (rather than look) as if they don’t fit; there are chilling moments when the image cuts out on his pained bellow resounding through the forest. And while the Southern Idiot Boy has become a cinematic stereotype milked ruthlessly over the years, Haze makes Lester something of his own, a person with his own voice, gestures and appetites. The thought-out quality of the performance is brought home by one particular line, when Lester spits, “I ain’t ask nothin’ from nobody in this chicken-shot town,” and Haze does something unexpected—he puts the stress on “town.” He’s found the way that Lester speaks, as well as the way he moves.

By the end, when Lester experiences a kind of liberating rebirth, we know who he is. He only wants to be loved. So does Franco the director, of course. With Child of God, he might have come a step nearer.