Child of God is Cormac McCarthy’s third and oft overlooked 1973 novel, ostensibly about a necrophiliac serial killer who lurks and creeps in the narrow hollers of deep-backwoods Tennessee. As of last Friday, it is also a 104-minute feature film – directed by James Franco and starring Scott Haze in the role of the story’s wholly unredeemable protagonist, Lester Ballard – that Americans in major cities can watch in a movie theater.
For a film with a relatively limited release, reams of reviews rolled in over the weekend – no doubt fueled by Franco’s involvement. On the whole, they were not good. The movie currently holds an aggregate 38 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a slightly more acceptable score of 5.9/10 on IMDb. As Ballard himself might grumble upon hearing this news, “Das’um fuckin’ goddamn bullshit.” I guess this is why I don’t typically read movie reviews, or any reviews for that matter. How is this still a job anymore, with the internet and all? But I digress…
I suspect that most of the individuals who are paid actual money to be film critics these days have never read McCarthy’s book, or even heard much about it before sitting down to write their pithy – and many times blatantly misinformed – reviews of a film that, for once, has submitted itself to what is virtually perfect source material and just shot the thing pretty much verbatim without some flunky smearing his or her greasy fingerprints all over it. As Rotten Tomatoes critics’ summary aptly points out (albeit in a completely misguided interpretation): “An obviously reverent adaptation that fails to make a case for the source material being turned into a movie, Child of God finds director James Franco outmatched by Cormac McCarthy's novel.”
Duhhhhhh. It’s Cormac Fucking McCarthy, simpletons, and the book is about a mentally unstable, crushingly lonely, and unholily nasty shell of a human being whose nose constantly drips with viscous snot and whose only solace is found in murdering women, dragging their bodies back to his lair, dressing them up (at least at first) in a disturbing interpretation of date-night outfits, and having sex with their corpses.
If someone can cite a screenwriter – or even, more generally, a filmmaker – who can tell a story with the singular conviction of McCarthy’s prose and, what’s more, is capable of “improving” it with the big screen in mind, I will gladly retire to some remote ridge of the Appalachians and live out the rest of my days hunting vermin for sustenance and taking dumps in the woods knowing that I am dead wrong. Just email me.
Except I don’t have to do that because Scott Haze already did. As just about every review of substance has pointed out (I suspect because the press packet included ruminations from Haze on his preparation for the role), Haze became Lester Ballard long before the cameras started rolling. He lurked in Tennessee’s deep backcountry for three months in isolation, losing some 30 pounds and living off the land like a true creature of nature.
Another thing almost all of these reviews mention, including last Thursday’s mostly positive write-up in the New York Times, is a quote from the anonymous, omniscient narrator who defines the novel’s moral parameters and opens the first act (of three) in the film. In reference to the story’s principal, the narrator says, “He was of German and Irish bloods. His name was Lester Ballard – a child of God, much like yourself, perhaps.”
What’s curious is how much of this masterfully crafted sentence seemed to be lost on those who were disappointed with the few things that differ between the source material and Franco’s adaptation. Namely, their charges that the film makes a ham-fisted attempt to stoke sympathy for a wild and sociopathic murderer. It makes me wonder whether these people have ever been camping alone in the deep woods, isolated with only their thoughts, a campfire, and a few cans of franks and beans. For many from the more remote and rural regions of America’s Southern wilderness, this is a seminal rite of passage and something people do when they are fed up with the world. For the majority of Yankee and West Coast film critics whose job relies on air-conditioned screening theaters and cushioned seats, this is probably a foreign concept that I suggest they try sometime. Maybe you will revert to a primal state such as Ballard’s and come out the other side with a greater understanding of yourself. If you end up killing and raping corpses, well, you’re probably not a good person. But at least you’ll know!
While I do agree that the scenes that attempt to humanise Ballard are among the film’s weakest, I also believe they are wholly necessary to stomach what is essentially almost two hours of an animalistic hermit who steadily sinks into the depths of humanity’s most base activities. And I also believe, or at least it’s my interpretation, that McCarthy’s books serve as a mirror to look into whenever we forget that we are human beings birthed from the primordial mud of Planet Earth, on which our ancestors foraged and fucked and murdered and raped and pillaged so that we can now vote within the construct of democracy, buy our fianceés cheap diamonds plucked from the ground by some doomed child miner in Africa, and drive big SUVs that are literally fueled by war.
I guess, for reasons of “full disclosure” or whatever, I should mention that James Franco writes a regular column for VICE.com. (I will also take this chance to mention that he never misses a deadline, which, as any editor who handles a high volume will tell you, is pretty much a fairy tale when it comes to writers.) As anyone who opens a newspaper or looks at pretty much any site on the internet knows, Franco likes to work, and he works a lot. That’s an admirable – and, some may argue, definitively American – quality. And like most people whose work I admire, I think much of his output is flawed. But also, like most people whose work I admire, the guy unapologetically takes risks others are afraid to take in the name of art. Sometimes it works perfectly; other times it doesn’t.
Hence my hesitance to watch the screener of Child of God when he sent it to me a few months back, and my delight in discovering that he did it just about how I would’ve done it. A couple days after receiving the screener DVD, I sent an email to Franco and his production partners: “Oh, what a great movie! Thoroughly enjoyed it.” I lied. I hadn’t watched it; I was positive that the book could not be made into a movie. And not for logistical reasons, such as the lack of a film adaptation for McCarthy’s sprawling epic masterpiece Blood Meridian (which Franco is also adapting into a feature, of which I am equally preemptively dubious).
Instead I gave the screener to my creative director and longtime VICE colleague Annette Lamothe-Ramos. She is my creative counterpart for both the magazine and VICE.com, and the reason for this is because she grew up in New York City and is responsible for helping to define the visual and cultural aesthetic of VICE as much as anyone else at the company. She does not, however, regularly read Cormac McCarthy (I think she mentioned that she had read The Road), nor did she spent her childhood hanging around the sorts of characters – or, perhaps, the offspring of the characters – who inhabit the universe of Child of God. So if she liked it, I figured that said something.
Before sending the lying email to Franco & Co., I asked Annette what she thought of the film. “Well…” she said, trying to get a read of how I would react to her encapsulated review while I stayed poker-faced, “I think the main character is so fucking creepy, and he shits on camera and you see his shitty ass, and he wipes it with a stick within the first five minutes.” I cut her off: “Great! Sounds like what I was hoping for!” And after finally seeing the film in theaters, I am happy to report that it was.
I’m dubious of anyone who claims to have a “favorite” book or movie or piece of artwork, but if Lester Ballard were to hold his rifle to my head and force me to make a list, Child of God would be way up on the list of books I would want to have with me on a desert island. Those who have read it will think that my selection is either supremely disturbing or spot-on. But I would choose this book because in my opinion there is no other work, literary or otherwise, that so thoroughly explores the extreme isolation of the Deep South, which can literally and figuratively chill to the bone. I have been there many times, rooting around those deep woods and those of nearby Mississippi and Arkansas. And believe me when I say that darkness still abides there, way out yonder among the pines and beetles and fox dens. In fact, in this modern world, it may be darker than ever.
As I can attest after recently filming a follow-up to my documentary on the Ku Klux Klan and Crips' aborted showdown in Memphis, which examines how the KKK and other hate groups in the region are actively recruiting veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, isolation breeds anger – and self-imposed isolation breeds the type of anger that can only be tempered by killing, maiming, and destruction. This is what Child of God is about; it’s the primary continuum of the entire tradition of Southern Gothic. It is here to remind us that if, as it has so many times in the past, greater America refuses to listen to the heartbeat of its most rural, impoverished, and depressed regions, evil will prevail.
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