Review: As I Lay Dying
James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying employs split-screen heavily to approximate the effect of the novel’s 15-odd contradicting, stylistically varying points of view. The method announces a certain modesty in relation to the canonical source. “Approximate” is the key word: the split-screens focus on the notion of multiple perspectives but only occasionally present points-of-view that are genuinely distinct. One half might show a medium shot, and the other a long shot from the same view; or one half will feature a nature cutaway while the other stares into a face. The film’s dependence on the split screen is anti-commercial and jarring enough to put off the completely uninitiated, but considering the novel’s difficulty, it’s a passable sidestep around the question of “unfilmability.” Some hesitant direct addresses to camera and the film’s sparse voiceover hint at the disaster that might have resulted had Franco been more aggressive about aping literary techniques through cinematic means.
But this As I Lay Dying is not a disaster, the faint praise an acknowledgment of the folly that unspooled in some minds when word first spread that the unusually prolific celebrity multi-hyphenate was going to attempt to render Faulkner. That the earnest result is a qualified, perfectly respectable success shouldn’t be a big surprise considering Franco’s seriousness, at least in the realm of literature. He has earned a master’s, published a short story collection to some acclaim, and made a student film on the subject of poet Hart Crane which, though reducing the life to a series of brooding photogenic poses, showed flashes of brash creativity and enthusiastic engagement with the subject. This is not the giggling irritant Franco of his Oscar-hosting and inept film criticism, but one with humility who (as he put it) wants to do right by Faulkner. The obvious downside to this careful avoidance of feather-ruffling is a drab adequacy that keeps the film from being more than serviceable.
Franco and college friend Matt Rager’s screenplay motors through the particulars of the novel’s mock-epic plot, making elisions and smartly trimming characters for coherence and time, and lifts most of its dialogue verbatim. Addie Bundren (instantly recognizable character actress Beth Grant) is the dying mother whose wish to be buried in the town of Jefferson is obeyed and enforced by husband Anse (Tim Blake Nelson), who demands his whole family make the journey with the homemade coffin in their wagon. Like the others, Anse has ulterior motives for wanting to make the trip. In his case, it’s partly to replace the gawping void in his mouth with new false teeth. Daughter Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly) is revealed to be seeking some sort of abortion pill, after having been impregnated by a farmhand with whom she was secretly sleeping. Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green) is the quiet angry one who might not be Anse’s son. Danny McBride appears briefly and humorlessly as neighbor Vernon Tull, perhaps just to get the funny star’s name on the poster.
The whiff of vanity project, or caprice, that, for all its virtues and sincerity, still clings to the film would have been more ignorable had the director not cast himself as the most prominent character, brother Darl Bundren, to whose perspective we’re most often privy. Franco must have been too wrapped up in directing to think of anything interesting to do with Darl, who comes across as a void. Franco’s ample screen time includes only a few noticeable moments—he’s great reacting disgustedly to his father whining about having to forsake false teeth for so long. When Darl erupts in an outburst of babbling vitriol towards the end, it’s supposed to be a cathartic release of accrued frustration, and anger at Bundren hypocrisies, but Franco’s florid emoting is only confusing since he never planted the seeds. It signifies nothing. (The Sound and the Fury is reportedly due next for Franco adaptation, by the way.)
The HD photography by Christina Voros (who also shot the director’s The Broken Tower, Interior. Leather Bar. and Child of God) likewise contributes to keeping emotions stifled during the big scenes, maybe unintentionally. The sunny, flat lighting of Darl’s breakdown gives Franco nowhere to hide, and the modernity of the image’s crispness works in opposition to the sensitivity to time and setting evident in the costumes, props, location scouting, etc. Franco clearly enjoys the challenges offered by period pieces — much of the energy in The Broken Tower (the Hart Crane biopic) is expended upon masking signifiers of the modern world via tricky upward camera angles and blurred shallow focus. Here, in the could-be-Yoknapatawpha County wilderness, Voros’s camera is free to snatch plenty of handsome, mood-setting filler of swaying wheat, splashing mud, and mocking vultures. When these asides are accompanied by bits of voiceover Faulkner —“My father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time” or “I would think of the sin as garments which we would remove in order to shape and coerce the terrible blood”— you can feel the film grasping for a Malickian, in-the-gutter-looking-at-the-stars grandeur. Tim O’Keefe’s score, mostly doom-laden ambient scrapes and minor key guitar repetitions, complements the grey-brown-green imagery, but allows only a few avenues of entry for Faulkner’s comedic undercurrents.
Comedy is one piece of collateral damage risked lost when adapting a difficult novel like As I Lay Dying, and Franco loses most of it, but he deserves credit for the movie’s sustained dread, sense of inevitable tragedy and the simpatico anxiety of most of the performances. The split-screen tactic skews and simplifies, but still creatively simulates, on a reduced scale, the multiple perspectives of the book. Without the luxury of a novel’s ideally author-determined pace and length, Franco’s version, unsexily, performs admirably within its self-limited parameters.