As I Lay Dying

James Franco has proven himself an ambitious sort in recent years, branching off from merely working as an actor to studying for a master’s degree part-time, and now turning his talents towards directing. Franco certainly set the bar high for himself the first time on the horse, in adapting William Faulkner‘s notoriously challenging 1930’s work As I Lay Dying. Regrettably, Franco captures neither the sardonic wit of the novel nor any particularly compelling snapshots of his own in this rather muddled mess of a film, which is easily one of the weakest showings at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Addie (Beth Grant) is soon to be dead, and so her children Cash (Jim Parrack), Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green), Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly), Vardaman (Brady Parmenter), and Darl (James Franco) begin to make the relevant preparations alongside their father, Anse (Tim Blake Nelson), for her burial. Set in rural, downtrodden Mississippi, the trek to bury their mother and wife in the far-away town of Jackson proves an arduous one, one with more destructive implications for the family unit than they could have expected.

It won’t take long for audiences to realize that they’re in for a bumpy ride, because Franco makes his first big directorial mistake abundant pretty much from the outset. Egregious abuse of split-screens lends the film an ugly aesthetic right away, and a rather senseless one at that, given that these screens often display near enough the same image, with one merely being slightly more zoomed-in or at a scarcely different angle to the other. This generates an irritating coverage overlap that simply implies Franco wasn’t confident enough in his ability to commit to shots judiciously. The result is a cluttered visual pigsty that shows no clarity of composition whatsoever.

The real shame is that this stylistic foible creates a distancing effect between the viewer and the powerful material; when one side of the split-screen fades to black only to fade in an image from a barely noticably different perspective moments later, it isn’t just distracting but feels like a waste of screen space. Given that some truly enticing and memorable images do abound once Franco gives them room to breathe – namely the shot of the mother’s coffin floating downstream – this should be evidence enough of how wildly misguided his approach is.

While Franco should be credited for capturing the feel of the time and place adequately, he has arguably gone too far with regard to accents; Tim Blake Nelson’s toothless Anse is particularly difficult to understand, such that I had to resort to translating the French subtitles using my limited knowledge of the language, and actually understood him better that way. The casting of Danny McBride in a relatively small supporting role, it has to be said, is also ill-advised; he ends up sticking out like a sore thumb, even though we all like to think we’re capable of separating actors from their popular screen personas.

Performances on the whole, however, are solid, most of all the impressive up-and-comer Ahna O’Reilly, who likely emerges the best from Franco’s approach to the material. Franco, meanwhile, handles the more deranged elements of his character effortlessly, and though he’s virtually impossible to understand at times, Nelson damn near suggests that he just stepped out of the early 20th century, more convincing than anyone as a person of the time. As the youngest child, Brady Parmenter is also a stellar talent, ably knocking some of Faulkner’s best monologues from the book right out of the park.

This film will do little to dissuade those who feel that the actor is reaching beyond his abilities. It is not so much that Franco has butchered Faulkner’s novel as he has inflicted a garish blight upon the art of cinema.

The Upside: Franco’s film flashes a few nice images, a rollicking score, and is packed to the gills with impressive performers.

The Downside: The direction is indicative of an unexperienced helmer unsure of how to tackle ambitious material, and the accents are at times indecipherable to the untrained ear.

On the Side: Franco has also co-directed another film, Interior. Leather Bar, which is still awaiting release.

Grade: D-


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