I spent a lot of time anticipating James Franco's bold adaptation of William Faulkner's supposedly unfilmable novel, As I Lay Dying. But then nothing happened with it. Some reviews came out of Cannes in May. Some more came with its eventual release in October, but I only discovered these recently, urged by the film's sudden and, to me, surprising appearance on Netflix Instant.
One article probably can't save this movie from the insta-death it seems to have already suffered. But given the project's larger than normal curiosity factor, I thought it warranted a late review, particularly since I enjoyed it a great deal.
It becomes clear early on that As I Lay Dying is not nearly as challenging an adaptation as people have feared. That's not a slight against the book, which is one of the greatest I've ever read, but rather a confirmation that with smart writing and casting, Faulkner's story has plenty of interesting character work and incident to fill a feature length story. The notion that no one could make an As I Lay Dying film relies on assumed slavery to the novel's form (each chapter is a kind of stream of consciousness monologue by a different character). This might be a valid concern for an adaptation of Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury, which has a much heavier reliance on literary technique for substance, but As I Lay Dying enjoys a relatively concise, straightforward story that can survive a radically different format without losing too much of the power or even tonal complexity that defines it.
And what a story. Part ugly family drama, part horror story, and part ultra-black comedy, As I Lay Dying focuses on a massively screwed up family's absurdly hellacious journey to bury their recently deceased and rapidly rotting mother several towns away (because she doesn't want to spend eternity anywhere near these lunatics). Each member of the family displays enough memorable and intriguing traits that you can easily imagine them all filling up whole movies all by themselves. The novel amazes partly because it doesn't really matter who speaks from chapter to chapter; they are all fascinating. The film works the same way, though it obviously falls short of the detail and closeness Faulkner achieved.
Stripped of Faulkner's monologues Franco must rely on casting and faith that a visual manifestation of Faulkner's events will be enough to get a lot of the deeper ideas across. He largely succeeds in this. That in itself is pretty remarkable. Franco could have just sat back and let it all play out, and he would have offered a respectable entry into cinema's canon of disproven unadaptable novels.
But that's not good enough for Franco, a guy who seems increasingly dissatisfied with reaching for things that aren't out of reach. So he also chooses to present the film almost totally in split screen, not to tell multiple stories at once, but often just to give two angles of the same action, or sometimes simply to have two different shots form an abjectly interrupted picture of one subject. I won't pretend to understand what he's going for here, but I could sure make up a lot of smart sounding bullshit about it. Is it arbitrary? I'm not sure. All I know is that I admire the naked boldness of his decision and found the technique mostly enriched the film with an unnecessary but welcome added bit of curiosity.
He does use the monologues, by the way, usually with a character speaking directly to the camera. But they are sparse and cut severely short. This may anger purists, particularly when it comes to Addie Bundren, the story's dead matriarch. There are other losses to the story, but I understand what Franco's trying to do. You can't have everything. It takes a delicate balance to transport both the book's raw narrative and its spirit into such a different form. Rather than shove every word into the script, Franco (who co-wrote with Matt Ragar) tries to fill gaps in the text with his actors.
Franco himself can be a bit hard to take seriously in dramas lately. It's even more difficult with someone like Danny McBride who makes a small appearance as well. But it doesn't take long for that instinctual eye-rolling to go away. Everyone is great in As I Lay Dying. The big MVP, however, is Tim Blake Nelson, who manages to make his Anse Bundren just as evil, ugly, manipulative, and weirdly endearing as he is in the book. Without the aid of wanton murder or any other large signifiers like that, Anse remains one of literature's all time biggest bastards. But he is also a pathetic clown. Even if this were a silent film, Nelson (and his massive non-teeth) would still offer an apt visual interpretation of the character's rotten core.
Franco adapts Faulkner's work with respect but also displays confidence enough to give familiar audiences an interpretation worthy of their time, whether they ultimately like it or not. It has a bit of youthful arrogance on its recipe for sure, but also seems more deliberate and thoughtful than the work of some artsy poser.