Although Child of God is James Franco’s seventh feature length directing project in just three years, there was a sense that this might be the movie where he finally showed some discipline and reached a wider audience. Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy—the celebrated author of The Road and No Country For Old Men—this project seemed like it might even be approaching prestige picture territory. However, Child of God isn’t just any Cormac McCarthy novel, and it certainly isn’t one a Hollywood studio would ever bother adapting. This is the story of Lester Ballard, a deranged criminal who drops out of society and lives in the isolation of nature, attacking innocent strangers and developing a sexual relationship with a woman—who also happens to be dead.
While Scott Haze gives an impressively committed performance as Lester, this also turns out to be one of the most grotesque performances in recent memory. Necrophilia is just one of the many ugly activities he engages in, exploiting just about every bodily function available to demonstrate a sense of animal desperation. At its best, the film is quite potent and unsettling, but Franco has little control of the material. As a director, he would rather shock the audience than reveal truth. (This is particularly apparent in the film’s puzzling score, which tries to find misplaced redemption in Ballard’s consistently repellant behaviour.) Relying on McCarthy’s novel to deliver the film’s vision, Franco winds up relaying story and character, but little discernible vision of his own.