A man, muttering and twitching, is walking in the woods. He stops, drops his drawers and squats. A dark loaf of shit squeezes from between his asscheeks, and he digs around until he finds a stick with which to scrape off the filth that remains behind.
That scene plays out fairly early in James Franco’s Child of God, an adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel. The character is Lester Ballard, a man who today we might understand as being troubled and mentally deficient, but in the context of the films’ mid-20th century setting would have been seen as ‘touched.’ He’s the child of god, a strange and fucked up man who is homeless after the death of his father and who is harboring a festering hatred for everyone else in the world. Everyone except dead girls, that is. He takes them back to his lair and dresses them up and makes grunting love to their cold, motionless bodies.
It’s not for everybody. It is for me. At the center of this strange, disturbing (and often funny) character study is a blazing performance by Scott Haze. Fearless and primal, Haze blasts off the screen with his marble-mouthed, snot-flecked energy. He holds nothing back and exposes himself figuratively and literally. Blaze is so good as the fucked-in-the-head Ballard that I would be kind of nervous to meet him in real life; no normal human can channel this extreme madness without having it within them somewhere.
There’s not much story to Child of God; Ballard roams in the woods and gets into occasional trouble, running into the local sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) who seems not entirely sure how to deal with the gibbering mess who sometimes shows up in the county jail. Ballard lurks outside the cars of teens getting it on in the woods, jacking himself off, until he comes across one couple who accidentally poisoned themselves with their own carbon monoxide. He discovers that the dead girl can’t fight back, and so he brings her back to his squat, to live among the stuffed animals he calls friends.
But Ballard begins to escalate his behavior, and things go bad. The script, by Franco and Vince Jolivette, gives us insight into Ballard but never demands our full understanding of him. Franco’s direction also keeps us at a slight distance, allowing us to observe - sometimes sadly, sometimes ironically - the strange and terrible breakdown that occurs. It’s a character study in the truest sense, a movie that presents - largely without comment - this man. He’s a mad man, he’s a twisted man, but he’s not entirely a bad man.
Child of God is bizarre, sometimes shocking and always eccentric. Best of all it’s often funny; Franco isn’t making some po-faced meditation on the lives of the underclass, and he’s savvy enough to know that a grown man having an argument with his stuffed animal friends is funny as well as odd and sad. The film’s humor is just enough to offer a release valve from its more extreme content. Franco plays with some arty extravagances, like onscreen text taken from the McCarthy book, but he abandons it fairly early. It's too bad - I like the effect and would have enjoyed seeing more of it. Franco is comfortable letting Child of God have the minimalist, slightly stream-of-consciousness feeling one gets from McCarthy's best passages, and I think he really does the author justice.
This is truly Blaze’s* movie. He’s onscreen almost constantly, and his over the edge performance is mesmerizing and fascinating. I was enthralled by everything he did, every strange choice he made, every gross string of snot that snuck from his nose into his mouth. It’s a filthy performance, a creepy performance, a manifestly human performance.
* What a typo! It's "Haze." But he truly is a blaze.