Early on, Child of God
signals to you how it’s going to go about its business. Main character Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) abruptly stops his foraging in the woods to pull down his drawers, squat, go to the bathroom and use a stick to wipe his rear. All in plain view of the camera. This movie is going to literally show you shit… and much worse. The story goes on to include sexual assault, murder, the mutilation of corpses, and necrophilia, none of which the audience is spared from witnessing. That right there is likely to tell you whether or not you’ll be at all interested in watching this film. I’ll understand if you lose all interest, though this graphic ugliness comes hand in hand with some truly great artistry.
I know it’s a cliche for a critic to praise explicit, difficult work as “artistic.” I doubt that the debate over the value of smashing taboos will ever be settled. The best we can expect is that people become inured to what they previously never dared to look at or talk about, only for new unspeakables to come into vogue. Or maybe we’ll develop into a society without limits. I’d be interested to see what that looked like. But for now, there are certain things that we are conditioned from birth not to talk about or look at too much, and it can be incredibly uncomfortable when an artist forces us to do so (and I think that, the way cinema works, there is an element of force in how you experience what it has for you). The instinct, then, is to dismiss such works. A common refrain is that these movies only do what they do “for the shock value.” It’s a tricky area, because that is indeed all that some of them are trying to do (though I’d argue that there are ways for that strategy to be artistically valid). But I believe everything deserves full consideration. Look beneath the surface of some of these films, and yes, you’ll find an empty need to shock. But with others, you’ll find messages that will truly make you think or feel.
Child of God belongs to the latter camp.
We would label Lester Ballard with some variation of mental impairment, but in the vaguely ’50s or ’60s Tennessee setting of the film, he’s considered a “child of god.” Lester has lived on his own in the woods since his father’s death, antagonizing the locals as a way of periodically shaking up his endless drudge for survival. His only companionship in the world comes in the form of stuffed animals he wins at a local fair (he’s a terrifyingly good shot). He makes a habit of sneaking up to the cars of necking teenagers and masturbating to their lust. On one such venture, he discovers that the kids have accidentally killed themselves via carbon monoxide poisoning. He then takes the girl’s body back to his shack as his newest “friend,” and then, well, I already told you all the horrible things that happen here. Lester’s estrangement from society worsens and he grows all but feral. The film is a study in dehumanization.
At its center is Haze’s incredible performance. An actor coming seemingly from nowhere, he’s able to completely inhabit his character in a way that’s very rarely seen. His physicality is raw, starting out dangerous and wary and devolving to the point of near-animalism as the film goes on. He discharges snot and spittle and blood and worse, an open wound of a human being that cannot in any way relate to normal people. Ballard is horrific and pitiful and tragic, and sometimes even weirdly humorous. This is the kind of role that would win tons of accolades if any awards-giving body were truly dedicated to recognizing unique work.
Child of God was written and directed by James Franco, based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. The two may seem an odd fit, but Franco and his crew prove adept at conjuring a southern gothic feel on a low-end budget. The digital camerawork is often ugly, but in many cases, ugliness is the point, so its strangely appropriate. And nothing can diminish the beauty of an Appalachian forest. Still, the movie is cut in a disjointed, irritating way, edits showing up in the most seemingly unmotivated moments. It’s probably another purposeful move towards textural unpleasantness, but it’s still overwhelming. Franco’s art school tics, like voiceovers from townspeople talking about Lester or bits of text from the book appearing on the screen, are mostly frontloaded, easing out as the film goes on.
If (and this is a big if) you can get past the breaking of taboos, Child of God is a deeply affecting look at loneliness, survival and the cracking of the line between civilization and savagery. And even if you can’t jibe with that, you cannot deny the power of Scott Haze’s acting.
The Upside: An all-timer lead performance; a precise sense of setting
The Downside: Jarringly edited; sometimes ugly to look at; content may be (probably will be) too extreme for some
On the Side: In 2007, a teacher got into serious hot water when he gave the book on which this film is based to a student for a class project. The resultant controversy greatly aided sales of the novel in that area.