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Cormac McCarthy’s works are known for being three things: unrelentingly bleak, poetically skeletal, and distinctly American. James Franco’s film adaptation of the 1973 novel Child of God adheres to these three principles to great effect. Shown as part of Grimm Up North, Manchester’s excellent horror film festival, the film follows Lester Ballard, an animalistic loner in 1960s rural Tennessee, as he falls progressively further outside of society and descends into moral depravity.
Scott Haze is unrecognisable as the lean, bearded Ballard who blends in to the sepia tones of the Tennessee countryside as if he were part of the scenery. He barely speaks, resorting more often to grunts and shouts. He shits in the woods. He even moves like an animal, skulking through the woods or around the outskirts of his neighbours’ properties. The film hints at Lester’s mental instability such as his conversations with stuffed teddy bears or his violent mood swings that often result in multiple rifle shots at inanimate objects. Though there are some poignant moments that hint at a shred of humanity (the rescue of his teddy bears from a house fire being a stand-out moment), there is no hope of redemption for Ballard whose criminal record includes assault, burglary and public disorder, later growing to include murder and necrophilia.
The film is slow to build and spends most of its first half following Lester through the forest as he scrounges for items in the dirt or gets into fights with the local sheriff. The dialogue is as sparse as the setting, saved mostly for Lester’s few interactions with the citizens of the local town. However, once the main story gets under way it unravels an intriguing idea of morality and isolation. Lester’s lonely life of isolation and depraved survival is contrasted with couples: the sheriff and his deputy, the young couple whom he disturbs in a car, the two children that invade his property. Similarly, the simple but comfortable houses of his neighbours are a world away from the dilapidated glorified shack in which Lester lives.
Lester’s inability to form meaningful relationships is also explored. He avoids interaction and shuns any unnecessary activity that might bring him into contact with others. His discovery of a young couple having sex leads to his abducting the dead body of a young woman in order to keep it in his hovel, where he talks to it and uses it for sexual gratification. Lester is a depraved pervert but the argument is that he is not one without context.
The film is not without its flaws. The camerawork, intending to be voyeuristic, instead becomes shaky and amateurish, and Haze’s Southern drawl is often incomprehensible. But Child of God is bleak, depraved and well crafted and it’s a huge shame that this was the only UK showing.