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As_I_Lay_Dying_2013_film_poster

Say what you will about James Franco (and I’ve said plenty of bad things, trust me) but you can’t accuse the actor-director of sticking to strictly safe, middle-of-the-road projects. For every Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) or Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), we get something like Interior. Leather Bar (2013) or his recent adaptations of William Faulkner’s infamous As I Lay Dying and Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God (both 2013). I’ve often felt that Franco can be scattershot and unfocused, while also feeling that his best acting work was still all the way back in Freaks and Geeks: he’s done the sub-James Dean thing for almost two decades, at this point, but he never felt more authentic than in Apatow’s short-lived TV series. That being said, I did enjoy his recent meta-Apocalypse comedy This is the End (2013), which revealed a fairly deft hand when dealing with his large ensemble cast. Would he bring this same quality to his adaptation of Faulkner’s notoriously “unfilmable” book? Read on, gentle readers…read on.

As I Lay Dying, Faulkner’s 1930 classic about the Bundren family and their quest to honor dead matriarch Addie’s final wish, is one of those novels, like John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces or McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, that most folks have considered nigh impossible to bring to the screen. While Confederacy’s tricky narrative seems somehow cursed, at least judging by the number of failed attempts to bring it to the big screen, and Blood Meridian is held-back by its awe-inspiringly ugly content (I think this probably has as much chance of being filmed as the Crossed graphic novels do), the problem with filming As I Lay Dying has more to do with the structure of its narrative. Since the book tends to be very stream of consciousness and uses multiple narrators to tell its tale (each member of the large family, including the dead Addie, gets a chance to narrative), there isn’t a whole lot of “physical” business to hang your hat on: it’s mostly inner conflict. This is one reason why Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has been largely considered “unfilmable.”

While the narrative structure in As I Lay Dying is decidedly non-conventional, it’s not like we’re dealing with a Kenneth Anger short: this is still a story about a family coming to grips with the loss of their mother while trying to find their own (very awkward) way in the world. These are relateable characters, even if we might not be standing square in the shoes: with the right touch, filming As I Lay Dying certainly doesn’t seem as improbable a task as taking on Joyce’s post-modern epic. For the most part, with a few reservations, I think that Franco acquits himself quite well. This adaptation isn’t perfect, of course, and many of my issues with Franco (unfocused, scattershot) tend to be issues in this film, as well. If it ultimately ends up being a bit more of a triumph of style over substance, that’s not necessarily a terrible thing: the film is never boring and frequently quite beautiful.

As Addie Bundren (Beth Grant) lays dying, she asks her husband, Anse (Tim Blake Nelson), to fulfill one final wish: she wants to be buried in the nearby town of Jefferson, several days ride from their homestead. She also wants to see her kids one final time, especially her favorite son, Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green). Jewel and his brother, Darl (Franco), however, are out making a delivery and don’t make it back til she’s already passed on. Jewel, of course, feels terrible but Darl seems a bit more ambivalent. Rounding out this merry bunch o’ folks is another brother, Cash (Jim Parrack), the youngest kid, Vardaman (Brady Permenter) and the family’s only daughter, Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly). Anse’s friend, Vernon Tull (Danny McBride) hangs around for a bit but, ultimately, it’s just the Bundrens against the rest of “polite society.” As one set-back after another befalls them (the bridge is washed out and a river crossing becomes disastrous, Cash’s leg gets badly broken and “set” with wet cement, Dewey Dell is “in a family way” and needs to take care of it), the Bundren keep trudging on, hauling Addie’s coffin along to its final resting place. As Addie begins to rot, the Bundrens are treated more and more like pariahs: outsiders be damned, however…they will get to Jefferson one way or the other.

In order to handle the multiple narrators/points of view necessary to pull off the story, Franco uses two techniques: he utilizes a split-screen format in order to present opposing POVs simultaneously (obviously necessary to prevent the kind of bloat that could have sunk this quickly) and he has various characters deliver monologues directly to the camera. Of these techniques, the split-screen is the more intrusive but ends up being the more effective, in the long run: the monologues always come across as stagey and awkward, overly theatrical and way too presentational. When the split-screen works well, it’s used to excellent effect: at one point, Darl has a conversation with Dewey Dell and each actor is represented on one side of the screen. When either actor speaks, their voices are heard in the opposite frame but they don’t speak in their frames. It’s a showy effect, to be sure, but it actually serves a very valid purpose, allowing for a more concrete way to express the disconnect that these people feel. At another point, the split-screen is utilized underwater, leading to a really cool effect where each frame is a different color: it’s actually pretty neat, to be honest, aided immeasurably by the consistently excellent cinematography.

In fact, if I have any major complaint about the split-screen format (once it gets past the rather laborious first 15 minutes, that is) it’s that it often seems to devalue cinematographer Christina Voros’ amazing work. As I Lay Dying always looks great and, often, the film looks quite beautiful: Voros has a particularly “painterly” way of framing characters, similar to director Peter Greenaway, and this leads to some mighty impressive vignettes. I don’t know that the split-screen was, ultimately, necessary to the film’s structure (the monologues certainly weren’t) but they do end up adding some artistic, as well as subtextual, depth to the production.

As an adaptation, As I Lay Dying works pretty well, although it doesn’t do much to clear up some of the book’s denser elements. In particular, I found the revelation of Dewey Dell’s pregnancy to be handled in a rather confusing manner: while I haven’t read Faulkner’s novel since college, I’m pretty sure that the film arrives at a different conclusion. It could be that I missed something, of course, but I have the nagging suspicion that it was changed. The only other major change that I could see was the omission of the book’s non-familial narrators, which makes perfect sense: in a low-budget production, including a raft of extra characters doesn’t make much sense, logistically. It never hurt the narrative, at least as far as I could tell, so this seemed like a pretty negligible change.

Acting-wise, Franco’s cast does a pretty good job and coheres fairly well. Tim Blake Nelson is pretty extraordinary as the (literally) toothless Anse: even though I had the devil’s own time understanding him at any given point, Nelson brought an intensity to the performance that was electrifying. The scene where he finally puts Jewel in his place, explaining how he went 15 years without food and Jewel can damn well go a few days without a horse, is powerful stuff. Marshall-Green and Franco acquit themselves just fine as Jewel and Darl, respectively, but Jim Parrack is the real fraternal standout as Cash, the no-nonsense carpenter. As strange as it sounds, I found the scene where he described the logistics of coffin building to be utterly fascinating: I found myself captivated, despite having no interest in woodworking or coffins whatsoever…that’s a good performance! O’Reilly had several good moments as Dewey Dell but she also had an unfortunate tendency to be a bit wooden, a problem that seemed to infect other members of the cast. On the whole, the acting tended to vacillate between “excellent” and “serviceable,” with no one being particularly cringe-worthy.

Ultimately, As I Lay Dying stands as a very respectable, respectful adaptation of a notoriously difficult novel. When the film works, it has a real sense of dark power and urgency that is rather enthralling: the final resolution of Dewey Dell’s “problem” is just as horrifying and depressing as the resolution of Jennifer Connelly’s “problem” in Requiem for a Dream (2000). When the film doesn’t work, it can come off as stiff, pretentious and a little tone-deaf. That the film is, in the end, more successful than not certainly speaks volumes to Franco’s dedication to this project. After seeing this, I’m genuinely excited to see what he’s done with Child of God, especially since he once again utilizes Voros as his cinematographer.

I may not be a member of the Franco Fan Club just yet, but rest assured: a few more films like this under his belt and he runs the risk of actually becoming someone I’ll have to pay attention to. Now, let’s get him working on adaptations of Blood Meridian and Confederacy of Dunces: it’s a hard job but somebody’s gotta do it.

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