Warning: This piece contains spoiler alerts and disturbing content.
I first heard James Franco planned to make the 1973 novel Child of God into a film during the scorching summer of 2012, sitting on a porch in Iowa and listening to banjo with my soon-to-be husband and a dear guy friend, both of them Cormac McCarthy nuts. (Perfect setting, I suppose.)
“Shee-it,” said Rob, following a heavy swig of whiskey with a deep pull of his cigar. “Some stories just don’t belong on camera.” Taylor and I concurred. After all, it’s the tale of Lester Ballard, a solitary, rifle-bearing quasi-maniac — “a child of God much like yourself perhaps,” McCarthy writes — and his developing taste for serial killing and necrophilia.
McCarthy certainly never provided much rationale for the book, famously claiming that he penned it “for some damned reason or another.” Franco was clearly drawn to it because he adores McCarthy’s writing, much of which he preserves. Though the script differs from the book in at least two key respects, altering the ending and eliminating one subplot, it also lifts large chunks of language, preserving the overall feel.
As a result, Child of God remains as nuanced as it is disturbing. From Blood Meridian’s The Judge to No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh, from the brute marauders of The Road to Malkina in The Counselor, McCarthy excels at creating villains who embody profound evil — their motives are irrelevant, and their actions will never quite make sense to the other characters, or the average reader, for that matter.
Franco’s direction of Ballard is more subtle. In a brilliant performance, Scott Haze speaks his lines in a dialect of one, emphasizing the main character’s pariah status; he hunches his body and lopes through the wild landscape like a beast.
Neither Franco nor Haze shy away from the horror: As Ballard settles into serial killing, McCarthy wrote, he had “long been wearing the underclothes of his female victims but now he took to appearing in their outwear as well.” The film’s most terrifying moment portrays a grinning Ballard, “a gothic doll in illfit clothes,” clad in dresses, smeared lipstick on his face and a wig of bloody scalp atop his head, reminiscent of the tribal massacre scene in Blood Meridian — “death hilarious.”
But Haze also plays Ballard as a human, not a metaphor. He blushingly talks to his first corpse lover, petting her hair and gifting her a dress he’s carefully chosen and purchased. And when he’s unable to save her body from an accidental fire, we see him experience what looks like genuine grief and loss. Throughout a sense of humor underpins the character, albeit a very dark one.
“The more I got into [the role], the more I realized it’s not about necrophilia,” Haze said in a recent interview. “That’s a result of being extremely lonely. [Lester] just wants friends, he wants a girlfriend. He wants to be loved, he wants to connect with people. If there was Instagram back then, or Twitter, or whatever these other dating sites are, I don’t even know, he could go on there and be like, ‘I like to live in caves.’ Then this girl would be like, ‘I live in caves too!’ And then Mr. and Mrs. Lester Ballard could get together. But he didn’t have that option. In the 1950s, it was, ‘You’re not welcome in society, we don’t like you. Boom.’”
That interpretation gives Child of God a timely twist: If he’s a man who’s gone mad from rejection, a killer who acted out of loneliness and derangement, perhaps the audience can absolve him.
Then again, we didn’t absolve the UC Santa Barbara shooter, who also took to violence while unstably lamenting about “hot, beautiful blonde girls walking with absolute stupid, obnoxious looking douchebags. And I can’t help but think how wrong that is. Those beautiful girls should be walking with me.”
The debate becomes familiar: Is Ballard irredeemably evil? Or is he a victim himself, plagued by mental illness and demons beyond his control? In short, does he remain a child of God? And if not, can we wrap our minds around whose child he’s become?
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.