BY Gina Tumlos
As I Lay Dying follows the same story arc of a Grecian hero who embarks on a journey for a loved one, meets peril after peril, and after much toil and suffering, is revered for his strength and stamina for withstanding all that unjustified otherworldly nonsense. Except there is no hero in William Faulkner‘s eighty-three year old family saga. There isn’t even a reliable narrator to turn to. Everyone is embroiled in their own inner turmoil and there is no exaltation waiting for any of the characters at the end of the line. Nobody really wins in this one; only a new set of teeth and a new set of problems await the remaining Bundrens on their way back home.
Instead of heroes, there is the Bundren kin: Patriarch Anse (Tim Blake Nelson, basically reliving O Brother, Where Art Thou‘s Delmar O’Donnell, but this time with no teeth), his children Cash (True Blood’s Jim Parrack), Jewel (Tom Hardy-lookalike Logan Marshall Green), Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly), Vardaman (Brady Parmenter), and of course, writer/director/actor James Franco as Darl, the sometimes narrator, sometimes stinkeye-giver, and overall father-hater.
The Bundrens carry their deceased mother’s decomposing body across 40 miles of hilly southern terrain from Yoknapatawpha County to Jefferson just as she wished as she lay dying. The plot is so simple that its title gives the whole thing away, but as in the novel and as should have been in the film, it is the way the story unravels which gives As I Lay Dying its gravitas.
Did Franco live up to the draconian shadow of William Faulkner? Did his multi-hyphenated credentials give him the means to support his ambitious passion project? Or is his third foray into filmmaking another experiment undeserving of its source material? In a way, it is both, but to give credit where it is due, As I Lay Dying is a 20th century creature of its own making, and no matter how overwrought Franco’s interpretation might be, he manages to approximate the lifelong alienation and unrest of each Bundren family member in only 110 minutes.
As I Lay Dying grapples with several themes, chief among which is the interiority of identity, something which Franco cracks at the very first instance. The novel is divided into 59 chapters, all of which are point-of-view narrations from each of the Bundrens as they explore themselves as the sojourn wears on. Darl gets the lion’s share with 19 chapters, and it is because of his ubiquity and unnatural clairvoyance that the story is propelled forward despite the retreat of all the other characters into their own consciousness.
The use of split-screen is supposed to explore the different perspectives of the characters, however, its excessive use removes its subtlety and becomes a mere freshman technique designed to constantly remind the viewers of that which has already been established in the first 15 minutes of the movie. Split screen is employed to rupture the illusion of seamlessness, but as Franco uses it to sometimes show the same action, emotion, or rendering, the device loses its functionality since there is no great distance to be traversed between two perceptions.
The HD cinematography also adds to the film’s affectation despite its disservice to the feature’s softer moments. Christina Varos’s harsh lighting makes tangible the 1930s Southern lifestyle and reveals the Mississippi atmosphere which forms and deforms the Bundrens.
The voice-overs set against slow motion and aerial shots of birds and clouds come across as a tribute to Terrence Malick, master of the grand firmament cutaways and editing room murder. But in less experienced hands, the technique becomes an unnecessary imitation that only drags the movie along. Darl and company start talking to the camera in several key instances and it works to demystify the viewers and evoke a personal tug–but to nitpick, the inconsistent Southern accents of the cast may become distracting to some, especially O’Reilly, who seemed to really have studied her lines very well, but her performance on screen translates as, well, studied.
Jim Parack stands out as Cash, the older brother who spends most of his time on his back, as he embraced the kind of looseness and resilience workingmen embodied during that era. Logan Marshall Green is almost unrecognizable with all that facial hair, but as Jewel, all he needed was his huff and hunch to convey the rage his character could barely manage.
Tim Blake Nelson’s casting as Adse is satisfying, given his experience with characters from the same range and background, and his was perhaps the most challenging role. It’s hard enough to follow the cadence of the Mississippi dialect of that time; imagine doing it with prosthetic gums.
As for Franco, it’s difficult to hold James Franco-the-director and James-Franco-the-actor separately accountable for Darl Bundren. Perhaps one of the most complex characters in American literature, the outsider whose progression into insanity is so deftly and richly splayed in his speech, a character so crucial to the exposition of the emotional and psychological landscape of the film and in appreciating Faulkner’s originality, rebellious spirit, and linguistic brilliance at large, Darl was given one large inorganic moment of sundering, and then nothing else more.
Franco is adept at maintaining the disgust Darl has for his father and wayward sister, and for all the fearlessness of James-Franco-the-actor (watch him disappear into Alien in Springbreakers and your faith will be restored), his eyes betray the calculated caution of James Franco-the-director, because more than anyone else, he has the most to prove. As I Lay Dying, Franco’s third directorial endeavor (he’s making Sound and the Fury next), stewed in the back-burner for a long time. He is a bigger Faulkner fan than most, and the film has all the makings of a passion project; however, over-calculation, too much self-awareness, and a hefty source material to begin with did not make the transition any easier. Unfortunately, at the cost of giving a portable dramatization of the novel, the film manages to sail over the rougher, deeper, and more interesting ridges of the Bundren family dynamics.
Cash’s assurance that “it ain’t a bother” holds true for the movie as well; it sure isn’t too much of a bother to sit through it, but the real question is: should you bother? For all its flaws (which if you really think about it, kind of lends an undergraduate, raw charm to it), Franco manages a faithful adaptation of one of America’s most observant and studied pieces in modern history. But if you have read the book, then this film, though not an exercise in futility as it does have its moments,becomes unnecessary.
Watch the trailer here:
As I Lay Dying, distributed by Millennium Films, opens in the Philippines exclusively in Ayala Malls Cinemas on Nov. 27, 2013.