CHILD OF GOD
Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: James Franco
Screenplay: James Franco, Vince Jolivette, based on the novel Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
Cast: Scott Haze, Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Parrack, Nina Ljeti, Brian Lally, James Franco
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 7/23/14
Opens: August 1, 2014
Living close to nature is not what it’s cracked up to be. Yeah, it’s fine for a week, if you’re into camping, but when you have to live like a feral animal in the hills of East Tennessee, virtually homeless with nary a shack within a mile, you could get mighty lonely—and dirty. But that’s not the least of it. Dirty he is, but Lester Ballard (played in a tour-de-force, theatrical performance by Scott Haze), tolerated his own presumably smelly body and then some. As Tennessee’s most notorious necrophiliac, he had sexual relations with at least two dead bodies, one, a woman who was already gone in a seeming suicide pact with a man, and another that he shot and dragged back like a cave man to wooden abode. Eating the dead? Talk about a Paleolithic diet!
The ubiquitous James France sits in the director’s chair knocking out a faithful version of Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel, considered by some perhaps the most fair-minded tale of necrophilia, one that could conceivably have readers and, in turn, members of the movie audience siding with the guy by recognizing the humanity underlying the perversion. When he picks up a dead woman from the bowels of a car, discarding the man with whom she committed suicide, he experiences a satisfying (to him) sexual union which McCarthy describes graphically in the book: “Scuttling down the mountain with the thing on his back he looked like a man beset by some ghast succubus, the dead girl riding him with legs bowed akimbo like a monstrous frog.” The moviegoer misses the cadences of the novel but enjoys a performance from Scott Haze that should have the awards people at year end penciling in his name. Haze purportedly lost 45 pounds living in a cave in preparation for the role, eating nothing but fish and apples.
Apparently retarded with what looks like a double set of teeth, causing him to spit out words that are barely comprehensible, Ballard avoids looking at people straight in the eye. Instead he bends his head, gazes up with his eyes as though following an ophthalmologist’s direction to “look up,” his brief sentences to the sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) simply defending himself with words like “I don’t know nothing about a body.”
Director Franco follows the novelist’s division of the story into three parts, adding some voice-overs to give us in the audience a feel for McCarthy’s chilling prose. He focuses on Ballard, living in Sevier County, Tennessee during the 1960’s, a man who carries a rifle as though it were his third arm. He is not just retarded but disturbed, becoming increasingly so as society casts him off. We’re not about to believe that “all he needs is love.” He is too far gone to warm up to anyone, preferring to shout, to rave, to respond to voices like a schizophrenic. Among his revolting actions are masturbating outside a car while watching a couple making love inside and putting a bullet into a cow strictly for fun. Franco finds humor in the man at various points, particularly when he invades a chicken coop and has tough time capturing one of the flustered birds. He defecates in the woods (in a scene that Judd Apatow might want to copy in a future movie), wiping his butt with a stick. Snot drips from his nose, causing some of the audience to turn away. He is pursued by the sheriff who’d like to put a bullet in him but is apparently restrained by his oath of office. He decorates his cave with decomposing bodies, one of whom he lovingly dresses in a new outfit finishing the job with lipstick, and sets up three stuffed animals which he wins in a carnival shoot.
If you are repelled, the movie has worked. The Tennessee-set story is not like Walt Disney’s 1946 movie “Song of the South,” nor will you hear anyone burst into the song “Zippa Dee Doo Dah.” You will not leave the theater indifferent, and as stated above you may even find some sympathy for the man as he sets about the rugged southern terrain. Nor do we ever find out the reason for his pathology. Haze so dominates the proceedings that you might almost forget the role of the Sheriff Fate, his deputy, or the townsperson who gets shot near the conclusion. Whether this is thematically your kind of pic, you’d be churlish to dismiss Haze’s look, his bellowing, and the way he must be suffering.
Rated R. 104 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – A-
Technical – B
Overall – B