Child of God
(Check out my previous film review in this series here: All The Pretty Horses)
Before I jump back into reviewing straightforward Westerns, I’ve got a few genre-bending numbers in the week ahead, as well as this review of the 2013 arthouse Southern Gothic film Child of God. The film is an adaptation of American author Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel of the same name, and like most of his works (and especially his earliest works) it is especially gruesome, bloody, nihilistic, subversive, and artistically daring. Through this story of an asocial idiot who becomes increasingly isolated from those around him and falls into a life of crime and taboo behavior, McCarthy works to press the patience of facile Christians who must call even this disgusting being a ‘child of god’ and a ‘brother’ to be totally consistent with their doctrines, despite one’s visceral response to the contrary.
The result is to make intellectually honest Christians aware of a core hypocrisy within the character of themselves, and by extension, of a diametrical opposition between the nature of the world as it is and the sugarcoated fables of religion, which tell us that all people have moral worth and ought to be treated fairly. The gut reaction to the character of Lester Ballard is to either morally support the town’s lynch mob attempt to wipe him off of the face of the earth or to hope to hell the lawman Sheriff Fate (Tim Blake Nelson) catches the guy and is able to lock him away and throw away the key.
Helmed by actor, director, producer, writer James Franco, the film was his second work in the medium of film to recognize and champion the literary heritage of the United States. The first work entitled The Broken Tower, and released in 2011, was a biopic on the life of Hart Crane in which Franco played the man himself. In the years following Child of God, Franco has directed two adaptations of classic novels by William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying, The Sound and The Fury), and an adaptation of a little known novel entitled In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. Franco has also portrayed the great American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in the 2010 experimental film Howl, centering around the book’s obscenity trial in 1957, and is currently directing and writing a film chronicling the early life the American gutter poet (and one my top five favorite authors of all time) Charles Bukowski simply entitled Bukowski. Franco’s work in cinema is certainly setting himself up as something of an obscene, gritty James Ivory. And a large Criterion Collection release ought to be somewhere on the horizon despite (and possibly because) most of his films in this vein being critically divisive.
Child of God is set in the 1950s in Sevier County, Tennessee. The elder Ballard’s wife leaves him behind with his teenage son to raise on his own. Her departure is mysterious and not explained in the film and ultimately drives the elder Ballard to taking his own life out of emotional pain and desperation. Lester remains at home, not knowing how to pay bills or make a living, as he is a bit touched (as my grandparents generation in Appalachia might’ve quipped) . Eventually, the bank forecloses on his family’s home and land. Ballard gets a job digging post holes until he can afford a rifle and then commences to threaten all those who attempt to buy or sell the home at gunpoint. He grows increasingly mad and eventually loses his home.
Over the course of the film, we watch Ballard roam about the woods and countryside as if in some arthouse nature documentary chronicling the exploits of an incensed God-man, now unhinged and capable of extreme violence at any moment. He happens upon a woman in the woods who has been raped and left behind by someone else. At least, this is seemingly what has happened. The woman makes fun of Ballard, and in response, he steals the last tatters of her clothing and lopes off into the woods, leaving her naked and exposed to the elements as punishment for her rude behavior. When she later turns up at the police department, she claims that Ballard raped her (and is obviously thereby protecting the real criminal). Ballard is taken into custody by Sheriff Fate, and as the fates would have it, after an extensive stay in the jailhouse, Ballard is freed after Fate figures out that the woman lied.
Ballard moves through the world like an animal with no concern about morality or law as these are social forces only and are not present in the state of nature. This brute man finds that he is attracted to women and has an innate need to procreate after stumbling upon a couple copulating in their car on a dirt road late at night. As such, when he runs across a suicided couple within their car on the same road a few weeks later, he takes advantage of the young woman’s corpse inside, and even later returns to take her photograph and some money from the young deceased man’s wallet inside, before also hauling off the corpse of the girl to store and bone in the remote hunting cabin he occupies out in the forest.
The grotesque horror of this man’s very existence and the fact that none of his evil is perpetrated for the sake of evil, but by the ignorance inherent within so-called innocents (in truth, persons outside of socialization and thereby more natural men and women than those around them), gives viewers an attempt to stare directly into the abyss, if willing to do so. The world stripped of the social impulse, the world of true libertarianism, both devoid of religion and of the common human experience: a husk of life left without morality as either a social or a metaphysical impulse, which reveals why either one or both of these forces (religion and social solidarity) are necessary for society to function, lest we become brutes like Ballard. The Ayn Randian pursuit of individualism for its own sake is important to the development of worthwhile human beings and personas, but without being balanced by social conventions life is not worth living at all.
The proper response to narratives of idiots, to serial killers, or to soldiers fighting in aimless wars is to recognize the abyss of nihilism and the lack of meaning and morality beneath all of the social world we have built as a species. And to then champion the structures in place and to work constantly to make them safer, stronger, more inclusive, and less subject to manipulation by psychotic businessman and politicians. Oh, and to realize that inclusivity cannot and must not preclude locking up those types, as well as the aforementioned like Ballard, who are irredeemable, and though not deserving of it (deserving being a metaphysical concept that has no real place in a good social system), must nevertheless be separated from civil society. Permanently.