For every role in a movie like Homefront or This Is The End, James Franco has twenty other projects he’s writing/directing/starring in that are on a completely different intellectual level, quenching this modern-day Renaissance man’s passion for challenging cinema. In keeping with that admirable spirit, Franco’s latest project, As I Lay Dying, attempts to adapt the famed novel written by William Faulkner – a project not even the craziest screenwriters would dare attempt. With so many narratives in Faulkner’s Southern drama, a translation to screen seemed like a professional death sentence, but for a man who’s attempting to conquer both mainstream and independent audiences, it couldn’t have been a better fit. Execution is a completely different story, which I’ll get to, but are you really surprised that NYU Professor and literature aficionado James Franco attempted such a wordy beast?
Franco’s screenplay follows Faulkner’s story completely, revealing the death of Addie Bundren (Beth Grant) and her family’s journey to bury her in Jefferson. Things are muddled from the get-go though, as most of the family seems too pre-occupied with their own agendas to properly respect their dead mother. Father Anse (Tim Blake Nelson) does his best to keep the operation running smoothly, but between Darl (James Franco), Cash’s (Jim Parrack) injury, Dewey Dell’s (Ahna O’Reilly) secret mission, and the typical pitfalls that these horseback riding families often encountered, the path to Addie’s funeral is a complicated one – if you can understand it.
Tim Blake Nelson’s character Anse is a perfect comparison to the entire film in my eyes. Anse is the character we sympathize with the most, watching his children use their mother’s funeral procession for their own needs. He scorns his children for bringing baked goods and tool boxes along for the ride, noticeably distraught by the death of his wife. It’s a role that Tim Blake Nelson is perfect for, not only slouching his physique and dirtying up his hygiene, but he emotionally inhabits the soul of a saddened, simple man – stumbling through his words through a thick, Southern mumble.
At the same time, Anse is nothing but a farce. A false character. When we’re not distracted by trying to understand this inaudible yokel, we pity Anse. We pity a man enduring hardships just to see his wife get a proper burial – but for what? His arc ends as simply as the others begin, and after all the frustrating, missed dialogue, we’re rewarded with coldness and a sour resolution. It’s amazing how Tim embodies such a role, but in making his drawl so realistic, it becomes almost unwatchable. Mix that with such an off-putting ending, and Anse is the most unlikable character of them all. Much like the film itself, Tim Blake Nelson executes as he should, but it’s hard to enjoy such a bland adaptation.
This is Faulkner’s material and Franco stays very true to the source, but you can definitely see why adapting As I Lay Dying was an unenviable task. I personally think the adaptation was cast perfectly, with the likes of James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson, and Jim Parrack inserting themselves into Faulkner’s world, but with the different intertwining narratives I found it hard to focus. Franco’s direction reaches for any indie film tropes possible, with the narration always switching over long shots of our characters gazing blankly into the distance, obviously showing the deep emotional struggles at play – right? Franco also adapts split-screen camera work that gives multiple points of view on single scenes, but this becomes aggravating and silly over time as we scramble to take in the numerous side-by-side visuals. When the Bundren family comes across a destroyed bridge, is it really necessary to split the screen in favor of seeing murky water overtake half our television? That’s it – just an underwater shot of dirty, gross water. Oh James Franco.
If you’re a Faulkner fan, James Franco’s As I Lay Dying might be the sophisticated cinematic adventure you need. It’s an intellectual property that’s all about character drama, but it’s rather stale and jumbled considering Franco wants us to connect to each character in some way. I admire James Franco’s ambition in creating a period piece out of such heralded source material, but sometimes there’s a reason why some stories are left on paper – for good.
As I Lay Dying tries to adapt the impossible, but unfortunately it is bested by Faulkner's weighty source material.