For Ben York Jones, it’s all about character. As a screenwriter, his feature writing credits include the 2011 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Like Crazy, Breathe In and the forthcoming WWII drama Ashes in the Snow. As an actor he can be seen in the Emmy- and Cannes Lion-winning web series The Beauty Inside, the 2010 Sundance Competition film Douchebag, and the short film Safety. He currently lives in Los Angeles where he is picking cat hair off one of his many plain black T-shirts. (Photo by Tiffany Roohani)
I just read a Hollywood Reporter briefing on the New York City premiere of James Franco’s Child of God. In it Franco is quoted as saying of the film, “It’s grim, but it’s really about a man who wants love.” To that I say: fair enough. And on that note, so are slasher movies. A man sees a woman. The voices in his head tell him she’ll never love him. He kills her with a chainsaw. À l’amour! Pretty much everyone, sane or not, wants to be loved. But rooting for Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) to find human connection is like rooting for a rabid dog to find a children’s playground. And that’s basically what we’re asked to do with Child of God.
Five minutes into Child of God, we watch Lester take a shit in the woods, and then wipe his ass with a shard of wood. Call me squeamish for not rewinding to confirm, but the details of this act lead me to believe it was a legit shit. It’s pretty gross, but in some twisted way I totally respect it. The commitment. The fearlessness. That term gets tossed around, doesn’t it? Fearless. I have to commend Scott Haze. He truly is fearless in his portrayal of Lester. In fact, his feral performance is the best thing about the movie, but it’s far from enough. His commitment is extremely impressive (beyond bodily functions) but the character ultimately goes nowhere and reveals nothing. Early on it’s clear: this rabid dog needs to be put down. And we’d be OK with that.
Labeling Lester a pariah would be an understatement. He’s a severely mentally disfigured psychopath who grunts when he should speak, and speaks when no one’s there. And despite a fall-short effort by way of narration consisting of passages from the book, the film does a poor job of convincing us to blame society or anyone else for Lester’s state except for… well, God, I guess. Maybe that’s the point. God put crazies out there. Good luck to everyone else. Thin as that is, I hope it is the point, because challenging us to care for Lester after we watch him unashamedly and repeatedly rape a corpse is kind of a tall order. Even then, do we need an entire feature film of stagnant and grotesque action to convey the message? Maybe this film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel just fell into the wrong hands. I hate to say that, but I’m thinking it. And I can’t help but wonder what an Alexandre Aja or Ti West version of Child of God would have looked like. More on that in a moment.
It occurs to me that most successful or thought-provoking movies about psychopaths focus on the person trying to understand the psycho. (We too are looking to deconstruct and understand, so we relate better.) There are exceptions to this of course, but in these cases, the psycho has to be pretty damn multi-dimensional. We like Patrick Bateman because he’s a satire with a face. We can dig on Dexter because he’s some kind of moral vigilante. Hannibal Lecter is the smartest person in the room. Any room. But imagine a version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre where we just follow Leatherface around. What does he do when he’s not committing heinous acts? Do we care? About as much as we care about what “Bruce” does when he’s not eating people off Amity Island. Lester scuttles around the woods poking at things. He steals a chicken. He shoots at stuffed animals, cursing them for being deceitful friends…. One of the chief reasons Child of God doesn’t work is it offers no substantial insight into the character it saddles us with, possibly because there’s none to be gleaned. Even Johnny (David Thewlis) from Naked, the most nihilistic and unsympathetic movie protagonist that I can think of, is actively in pursuit of destroying himself. It’s fucked-up and we may hate him, but at least he’s got an objective we can have some kind of feeling about. Lester has no objective. We’re not even sure if he’s self-aware.
But there is a home for characters like Lester, and we even get glimpses of it within Child of God. Movies where our main guy is a psychopath and we’re following him around, even getting off on him being a one-note psycho. It’s here we cross over into exploitation. And the embracing of exploitation. A recent example is found in the Aja-scripted Maniac remake staring Elijah Wood. It’s so wicked and so gluttonous… it embraces its nature and succeeds. In Child of God, the first thing the narrator tells us is that Lester (the cold-blooded murderer and unashamed necrophiliac) may be much like ourselves, the viewer. Maniac takes this same notion and exploits it in a visceral way, by shooting the entire movie first-person. We are Elijah Wood’s eyes in that film, only getting a glimpse of him/ourselves when a mirror is turned on us. It sounds like a silly idea, but it really works! And the film needs it. It disarms us by letting us know we don’t need to take it seriously, and because of that we do.
Child of God could have taken a page from Maniac and its exploitative brethren. Again, I can even feel it wanting to. The film’s title appears in big, bold lettering over Lester’s face, the way the title appears in Funny Games. The camera is loose and shaky, like a found-footage horror film. There are hints of humor in performance and direction. There’s one really funny and disturbing moment in the film’s third and final chapter that whets the appetite, showing us the kind of film we could have been watching all along, but it’s over fast. This story is also beholden to its literary roots. What would people think if Child of God, from the mind that gave us No Country for Old Men, had been reduced to an exploitative slasher movie? I say maybe it should have been.