Photo: Courtesy of RabbitBandini Productions
James Franco could be the closest thing we have to a modern day renaissance man. His résumé reads like an impressive grab bag: writing, directing, acting, and graduating from multiple MFA programs. Even his film career runs the gamut from slapstick-stoner comedies to groundbreaking indies. Though, his most recent release, Child of God, belongs in a category all its own.
The flick, which Franco directed, is adapted from Cormac McCarthy's shocking novel about a man living on the fringes of society. To put it lightly, audience reaction to the very heavy subject matter will be mixed — the movie follows a man who devolves into a necrophiliac serial killer. "One of Cormac McCarthy's main themes is this recurrence of violence, that there is something inherently violent about humans," Franco told us at a New York Film Festival screening. "I knew it was a very dark book [when I made the movie], but it was a way to talk about things that are universal. It's a movie about the need for a connection with someone outside of ourselves, the need to love and be loved, but told in a very strange, unusual way."
Child of God centers around Lester Ballard, an orphaned man living in Tennessee. He has been cast out of his town — and society in general — and slowly descends deeper and deeper into a life of violence and insanity. He maintains an almost childlike demeanor (thanks in large part to his stunted development), which is contradicted by his spiral into a life of crime. Relative newbie Scott Haze stepped up to the plate for the role of Lester, completely transforming himself in the process. "When I got to West Virginia where we ultimately shot, Scott was fully in character," said Franco. "I walked into his hotel room and it was like Lester was born; he was in this cocoon about to come out and he was just different...he was Lester." And, that was no easy task — Haze spent weeks living in the middle of nowhere, and even slept in a cave to get into Lester's mind.
For those who have read the book, the flick brings the literary nightmare to life on the big screen. For those who are new to the story, Lester's violent acts might just be a nightmare. Franco took painstaking measures to do justice to McCarthy's literary work, and it shows with every plot turn. "Almost every scene in the movie you can find in the book," he said. "Except for the scene when Lester shoots the stuffed animal, and that's one of my favorite scenes. The film had a lone protagonist, so the stuffed animal that he talked to took on a role in the film like a live character, so during the filming I felt like we needed closure. And, the shooting would also be a great way to see Lester coming unhinged."
For all its tragedy, violence, and disturbing material, Child of God certainly doesn't lack value. It's meant to be a character study to the umpteenth degree, examining what effect structure has on human nature, and how we interact with each other. For Franco, it was a chance to dig deep. "In my personal life I'm absolutely not attracted to dead people or anything like that," he said. "I guess for me, necrophilia is an extreme way to talk about things we all want, connection with each other...I"m in the commercial film world, I'm in the pop culture world as a performer, but I also have these interests that are kind of tangents to that world. So, maybe my place where I can generate a lot of energy is to bring these two worlds together."
Child of God hits theaters on September 29.