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For a time, it’s incredibly easy to sympathize with Lester Ballard (Scott Haze): his parents are dead, he’s just been kicked off his family homestead, watched it auctioned away to his neighbors and been soundly whupped after trying to intervene. In one fell swoop, everything he has is taken away and he’s forced to live on the margins of society, homeless, jobless, no real identity and some pretty obvious mental problems. The only thing he has left in the entire world is his rifle, a nasty mattress that he drags around everywhere and some stuffed animals he won at a carnival sharpshooting game. Faced with odds like this, any reasonable person might just give up but Lester keeps chugging along, careening from one misunderstanding to another. You feel awful for the guy, this “child of God” that no one wants and no one cares about: this, you think, could happen to any of us. And then the murder and necrophilia starts and it gets just a little harder to sympathize with ol’ Lester.

That’s part of the beauty of James Franco’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God (2014): we spend so much time with the amazing wreck that is Lester Ballard that we get to witness his dehumanization first hand, step by step. Whenever people watch newscasts and wonder what drives people to do the terrible things they do…well, ladies and gentlemen: here you go. Working from his own screenplay (co-wrote with Vince Jolivette), Franco digs deep into McCarthy’s disturbing character study and gets himself incredibly dirty in the process: full of all the shit, blood, mud and misery that powered the novel, Child of God also manages to be bitterly humorous, another integral facet of McCarthy’s oeuvre. There’s genuine power to the film, along with a streak of self-assurance that proves Franco deserves to be taken seriously. Powering the whole film, however, like the sun at the center of a solar system, is the astounding, feral and unforgettable Lester Ballard and the actor behind him, Scott Haze.

Structure-wise, Child of God is separated into chapters and unified by a voice-over narration that constantly fills us in on Lester’s backstory via recollections of his various neighbors, townsfolk, etc. After Lester is kicked off his land, we basically follow him around as he experiences one degrading situation after another, culminating in the disturbing moment where he comes upon a dead couple in a car and makes off with the woman’s body. From this point on, Lester attempts to fit into society, albeit on his own terms, and the results are just about as successful as you’d expect. After accidentally burning down the barn he was squatting in, Lester is forced to move into a cave, like an animal. As he becomes more and more marginalized and insane, Lester’s actions swerve from crazy but harmless into criminally deranged territory. It all builds to a violent confrontation with the sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) and the townsfolk, as Lester is made to answer for his crimes.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from Franco’s adaptation of Child of God, especially after being a bit lukewarm on his previous version of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (2013). While I thought the film looked great and had a handful of memorable scenes and setpieces, it was also rather jumbled and the climax sent the whole thing off the rails. Turns out I didn’t need to worry, however: Franco’s version of McCarthy’s novel gets pretty much everything right, from the streamlined narrative to the excellent use of voice-over narration and the amazing portrayal of central figure Lester Ballard. The film looks just as lush and gorgeous as As I Lay Dying, thanks to the return of cinematographer Christina Voros and the blue-grassy score is quite effective in setting the mood.

Without a doubt, though, Scott Haze’s central performance is what makes the film. There’s something so unhinged and feral about his portrayal of Lester that it transcends acting and becomes something closer to performance art. Thick ropes of snot hanging from his face, (literally) shitting in the woods, ranting, raving, barely intelligible as he keeps up a near constant flood of stream-of-conscious rambling…Haze is absolutely magnificent and never anything less than freakishly authentic. No lie: it’s one of the most amazing performances of the year and one that should have been an absolute shoe-in for multiple nominations (and wins) at any number of awards opportunities. Haze has a way of always allowing us to see at least a little humanity in Lester, right up to the point where that humanity is completely extinguished. It’s a stunning performance and one that I’m shocked hasn’t been part of the conversation regarding film in 2014.

I would, of course, be remiss is I didn’t point out that Child of God is a pretty rough ride, at least as far as content goes. The aforementioned moment where Haze actually squats and craps, in full view of the camera, is something I never hope to see again and the numerous necrophilia scenes are fairly graphic and intensely disturbing. There’s also something about the bracing way that Franco uses humor, such as the genuinely funny bit where Lester tries to wrestle the limp corpse back to his barn abode, that will probably turn quite a few folks off like a faucet. I happen to love dark humor in films, so really appreciated the effect, but can definitely concede that most of this won’t be the average person’s cup of tea.

From where I sit, however, Franco’s adaptation of Child of God is a miniature marvel. The film is consistently well-made and is never anything less than enthralling, even when it becomes increasingly unpleasant. Most importantly, however, Haze’s performance is so perfect that it would be practically criminal for anyone who considers themselves a fan of good acting to pass it up. People have been talking about adapting McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for decades, yet no one filmmaker has ever seemed up to that task. After watching what Franco is capable of here, however, it seems like a no-brainer: this is the director that can actually make it happen. Although I never thought I would say it, James Franco may have, quietly, developed into one of our most promising new directors. Who knew?

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