Franco offers an uncompromising presentation of the pathological regression of a socially disconnected individual. Child of God is a strong, unnerving and intense feature film breaking long held taboos with its grisly subject matter and unsparing visual representations of degradation. Some members of the audience were turned off by the graphic imagery of defecation and the more subtle depiction of necrophilia and masturbation, yet the film provides an unsettling insight into the consequences of total social isolation. Granted, Franco selected a story with an extreme outcome, but the impact of exclusion and virtual disconnection from the community is a topical theme in contemporary American society. From my perspective, one factor that frequently stands out in the analysis of mass killings, in the USA over the last decades is the extreme isolation of the killers beyond the social order.
Set in rural Tennessee half a century ago, Child of God it is based on Corman McCarthy’s novel Franco first shows the protagonist Lester trying to prevent the auctioning of his property with a background commentary giving insights into his troubled past. He next lives in an abandoned cabin in the forest surviving off the land. Finding a female body from an apparent suicide he engages in necrophilia. After bringing her to the cabin he caresses and fondles her, then goes to the village to buy her a dress. He talks with her as if she were alive. When the cabin burns down he tries to save her but can only rescue the stuffed animals he had won earlier at a carnival. While moving to an underground cave Lester accuses his stuffed animals of conspiracy and shoots them. Finally, we see him become a serial killer and hide the bodies of the people he has slain in the cave. After being shot by a farmer he had tried to kill, Lester is arrested but escapes while leading a posse to the cave.
Scott Haze, playing the outcast Lester, delivers one of the strongest acting performances of the NY Film Festival’s features. He becomes the role he is playing with semi-animalistic, distorted speech patterns and primal screams. Franco provides a cogent depiction of Lester’s sociopathic descent into total isolation including the disturbing imagery of defecation, masturbation, necrophilia, and murder
Though disconnected from the social world Lester wants to be part of it and the more isolated he becomes the more extreme his imaginary social life gets to be. Life without contact with others begets violence. Necrophilia becomes substitute for intimacy, discoursing with the dead and stuffed animals replace communication, and a caved community is created by assembling the dead. Society is recreated through his imagination and being excluded to the extreme fosters his pathological behavior.
James Franco’s film, which played to great acclaim at the Venice and Toronto festivals, will probably not become a commercial success, yet the questions posed by this film are fundamental.