There aren’t many authors out there with the same kind of hard, dark reputation as William Faulkner. He wrote a few screenplays but his major works have gone unadapted for feature films until James Franco decided he was the man for the job. The result is As I Lay Dying (2013), the story of the Bundren clan’s journey to bury their mother. The patriarch, Anse (Tim Blake Nelson), is just barely holding onto his control of the family and his decisions as frequently lead to disaster as…well, really it’s just disaster. The grown boys, Darl (James Franco), Cash (Jim Parrack), Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green), and the child Vardaman (Brady Permenter), go along with it, but they’ve all got some loose screws and their sister Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly) ain’t much better. This is a moody story laced with innate southern philosophy that’s so basic it lends itself to poetry. Perhaps the content and the reputation laid a bit too heavily on Franco’s mind and he strayed too close to Faulkner’s words and came out the weirder for it.
About ninety percent of the film is shot with a split screen that will show two sides of the same scene. The novel is told, each chapter, from different voices and this is clearly Franco’s inspiration. There’s also a great deal of ‘narration’ over the action and, occasionally, characters speak directly to the camera like a confessional. The direct to camera was a mistake. The split screen I’ll allow as poetic license, but the direct to camera is distracting. If you’ve ever seen a Terrence Malick film, you know exactly how this movie should have been done. Watching the bonus interview, Franco strikes me as absolutely on the right track. He even says that, because of the elevated nature of the novel, he didn’t want the characters to say everything for the camera. Then why the direct-to-camera? I also don’t like the split screens because it’s an inside nod to the book that wouldn’t make much sense to the uninitiated. But he made choices and you should disabuse yourself of any preconceptions of Franco being a lightweight or a pretty boy who bit off more than he could chew. If there’s a failing, he didn’t chew enough.
This carries through to the performances. Nelson, as the bumbling, toothless father sometimes wanders over the line into parody. Outside of those few moments, where his jaw is a bit too slack, he’s incredibly good. They captured that character perfectly. I don’t mean the southern-ness, but the age, the constant assumption that he knows best, and the self-indulgence. The rest are decent, I’d say. They are hampered in my estimation by that direct-to-camera work which is almost impossible to get right. I can’t even imagine how you might take the edges off Faulkner’s language so that seeing the speaker would become palatable.
The voice over is fine. Again, look at Malick. The best part about these voice overs–and this is roughly as true in As I Lay Dying as The Tree of Life (2011)–is that you can dip in and out of it without feeling an obligation to catch every word and meaning, but just let it wash over to create the desired impression. But that impression works best when you’ve got the camera working along with it. The cinematography (Christina Voros) is severely hamstrung by the overuse of the split screen. You’ve thrown out all of the empty space that is essential to the sparse verbal aesthetic. That’s to say nothing of the fact that there is neither gloss nor grain, but very like that TV movie look that undermines the film from the start. The music (Tim O’Keefe) wanders between interestingly ethereal and annoyingly chimey. Put it all together and you’ve got something that might have nailed it, but made a few wrong turns.
The lord giveth.
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