If director/co-writer James Franco had retitled his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel Child of God to A Man’s Love for a Corpse, he’d have a more honest film on his hands — not to mention a purposefully campy one. Even if he’d aimed a little higher, to keep in line with McCarthy’s unendingly portentous prose, and come up with something like A Yowling Man Didst Defile Her, there’d still be a twinkle of humor in the project. But no such luck. Franco, his co-collaborator, Vince Jolivette, and star Scott Haze appear to regard this outlandish outcast-against-the-world saga with utmost solemnity. As it stands, Child of God is brazenly, outstandingly bad, as vague, pretentious, and pointless as its sorry title. But it’s certainly memorable, full of inadvertent howlers and destined to create a whole new subgenre of burlesque, audience-torturing cinema.
Set in rural Tennessee, Child of God tries to make a tragic antihero out of Lester Ballard (Haze), a mush-mouthed, rifle-toting redneck with hateful eyes and a tendency to babble incoherently. A prologue shows him losing his dead daddy’s house to a greedy landowner, and then we are told his dad hanged himself and that his mom abandoned him during childhood, via omniscient narration dripping with Southern-style similes such as “the old man’s eyes was run out of stems like a crawfish.”
Lester wants the house back, and the landowner dead, but, these being lofty goals, he spends his days squatting at a leaky forest shack, hunting and biting off the heads of pheasants, and getting into various altercations with the bigoted townsfolk and a doltish sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson, playing his umpteenth backwoods dolt). One night, he finds a couple copulating in their car; he is caught masturbating near the car; he returns to find them dead from carbon monoxide poisoning; and he promptly defiles the deceased woman (Nina Ljeti) and makes her his secret trophy wife.
Franco and crew attempt to gloss up this uninvolving story with chapter headings, shaky camerawork, and an emphasis on gross-out realism. So we see Haze defecating — in real life — and wiping his ass with a stick. We see him drooling, vomiting, blowing snot. Mostly, though, we hear him — muttering, bleating, yowling, as if trying to portray a drawn-and-quartered moose. Whether he’s lunging at an enemy or pumping that corpse, or crawling, sans left arm — in the film’s one chilling sequence — through a narrow cavern, Haze is certainly vying for an Oscar in this predominantly one-man show. (It’s Ljeti, however, who deserves the prize, merely for keeping a straight face during the film’s two hysterical necrophiliac trysts).
But if there’s a reason to care for this character, Franco and Jolivette haven’t provided any explanation more substantive than “society neglected him.” So we’re left with lame stabs at poetry. In the most twisted take on a man’s bonding with an inanimate object since Tom Hanks’ love affair with Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away, Lester ends up with two carnival teddy bear prizes as his sole companions. They are alternately depicted as confidantes, voyeurs (during the sex episodes), and traitors (when, in the funniest scene, Lester shoots their feathered torsos to bits, on grounds of “treason.”)
Some may be moved; most, however, will deem Child of God god-awful.