Child Of God is a lurid backwoods exploitation cheapie that just happens to be based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy. As a McCarthy adaptation, it’s an abject failure; as a piece of art-damaged trash, it occasionally delivers the requisite squirms. Visually and thematically, it has less in common with No Country For Old Men or The Counselor than with ’90s shot-on-VHS gonzo efforts like Red Spirit Lake.
Wearing costume-store Billy Bob teeth and often standing with his torso at a 45 degree angle to his legs, Scott Haze plays Lester Ballard—wild man, voyeur, serial killer—as a loping, mumbling human question mark. As in his split-screen adaptation of As I Lay Dying, director and co-writer James Franco—who also pops up in a bit role, as the leader of a lynch mob—seems to conflate authenticity with unintelligibility, though one can never be sure whether the other characters’ ability to understand Ballard’s Pootie-Tang-esque speech is an intentional or unintentional running gag.
Like the source novel, Child Of God follows Ballard as he descends from anti-social misfit to deviant to cave-dwelling necrophile. There’s no real analogue to McCarthy’s voice in Franco’s shaky, colorless style, which resembles the early years of Dogme, though rarely in a good way. Instead, the novel provides inspiration for a series of cheap, quasi-transgressive shocks, including two extended corpse-fucking sequences—the second one played for laughs—that are impressive in their duration and detail.
Franco has gotten plenty of flak over the years for his extensive dalliances into writing, directing, and art. Frankly, there are much worse ways for a Hollywood star to spend his millions than making half-assed tributes to his favorite novelists, poets, and filmmakers; one just wishes the results weren’t so slapdash.
Child Of God, for one, could potentially work well on its own terms, as an exercise in bad taste; there’s an early, seemingly unsimulated shitting scene—composed in close-ups, and capped off with Ballard scraping the remaining feces from between his ass cheeks using a large, knobby branch—that is designed to provoke gasps from anyone who’s come into the movie expecting a prestige literary adaptation. But the film is too much of a shambles; it moves and sounds like a rough cut. Formal conceits—like title cards bearing excerpts of McCarthy’s prose—come and go, and most scenes are linked by awkward dissolves to black, which suggest Franco never found a way to seamlessly bridge the narrative. Still, the sheer volume of Child Of God’s tastelessness is at least enough to qualify it as unique.