Nobody ever accused James Franco of a lack of ambition, and adapting a book as unfilmable as William Faulkner’s masterpiece As I Lay Dying is a decidedly ambitious gesture. Faulkner wrote the novel like a man on fire, working days at a power plant and writing late into the night over four months. Franco directed his adaptation like a man on Adderall, writing the screenplay and playing Darl Bundren, and meanwhile studying for his Ph.D. in English, building a boat, and, like, translating Ulysses into Mandarin or whatever.
Addie (the great Beth Grant, whose commitment to Sparkle Motion cannot be questioned), matriarch of the Bundren family, expresses her deathbed wish to be buried in the nearby town of Jefferson. This final request leads to a series of catastrophes: injury, destitution, betrayal, internal monologues. Franco, a fine actor himself, assembles an excellent cast including Danny McBride as Tull, the Bundrens’ neighbor; Tim Blake Nelson as Anse, the family patriarch; and Ahna O’Reilly as Dewey Dell Bundren.
The soundtrack is all creepy, shuddering violins in minor keys and David Lynchian tonal subharmonics. Franco’s visual approach includes handheld cameras and the artless use of split screens, often with two asynchronous shots of the same actor. This detaches the characters from any sense of narrative time, and the effect is particularly alienating when used in lieu of over-the-shoulder shots during conversations—especially given Franco’s fondness for pairing the actors’ vocal tracks with still shots of their nonspeaking faces.
Isolated from one another in their own separate rectangles, they’re also cut off from connecting with the audience. There’s a lot of self-indulgent experimentation, but when it works, the film produces an undeniable sense of anxiety, as if being seen from the viewpoint of someone with major depressive disorder. To be fair, that describes a lot of Faulkner characters.
Where the split screen works is in quick, fragmentary moments, such as during the family’s disastrous attempt to cross a flooded river with their horses, wagon, and Addie’s coffin. It’s the first of the calamities precipitated by the family’s bullheaded determination to see Addie’s request through, in among their various other agendas, overt and hidden.
The book is told from 15 different viewpoints, as Faulkner experiments with interior monologues and stream-of-consciousness techniques. Naturalistic translation from page to film isn’t really possible, and Franco doesn’t try, having the characters instead recite their interior monologues directly into the camera. We get Addie’s monologue, as in the book, from both inside her coffin and from her deathbed.
The novel resists easy understanding, yielding only to close examination over an extended period, rewarding the reader who slows down, backs up, rereads passages—a particular engagement with the text that’s impossible in a theater. As a result, the book’s complexities fly by, often incomprehensibly, onscreen.
One feature that translates almost perfectly: a determined lack of fun. Modernist fiction writers, as critic Laura Frost observes, were sharply averse to the sensual or aesthetic, redefining pleasure as strictly cerebral, or as the satisfaction derived from hard work. Franco adapted a book that often reads like joyless homework into a film that feels the same way.