It’s like the big-screen version of the Oregon Trail. All that was missing was the dysentery.
After Addie Bundren (Beth Grant) dies, she makes sure that everyone in her family knows that her dying, last wishes are to be buried in a whole other town, where she’d be transported, by wagon, with every member of her family coming along for the ride. It’s a weighty-task to ask upon someone, but everybody in her fam-squad decides to do so, all in respect to her. However, there couldn’t be anymore of a dysfunctional crew going along on this trip with the nearly-incomprehensible Anse (Tim Blake Nelson), who just wants to get the new set of pearly-whites that his wifey-poo wouldn’t allow him to have when she was alive; Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green), the youngest one who may have some anger-issues as is, so to add on the fact that his loving, adoring own mother just died, is obviously going to add some insult to injury; Darl (James Franco) is definitely the quieter one of the group, but definitely catches onto things pretty quickly and knows what’s really brewing beneath the surface with the rest of his family; Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly), the only daughter that seems to be using this trip to get rid of “something” that has he so scared, that she can’t even mention it; and then there’s the handy-man, Cash (Jim Parrack) who definitely knows a thing or two about how to keep his mom’s casket from breaking wide-open, but doesn’t know a thing or two about keeping him, or the rest of his family safe when they come into some dire, near-death situations. Take all of these factors together, and you have a pretty crazy, wacky and wild trip on your hands.
However, being that this is an adaptation of a William Faulkner novel, that couldn’t be any further from the truth.
And it’s pretty clear and obvious to anybody who sees this that writer/director/star/God-in-his-own-mind James Franco definitely feels passionate about adapting this pretty heavy, pretty grim material. Now, from what I hear, the source-material itself is found to be almost “unfilmable” due to the fact that the book is split-up into 59 short chapters, in which they were all divided among 15 different first-person narrators. This basically means that Franco would have to do the impossible in the effort in telling the story, getting as much insight as you could from each and every character, not forgetting about some of the most important, relevant parts of the story and most of all, making sure that the whole thing doesn’t come off as a total and complete mess.
So, in order to do this and keep a disaster from happening, Franco inhibits a split-screen format in which we’ll get to see the point-of-view of a certain situation from one character’s side, or even get to hear them as they narrate their inner-most thoughts and feelings, looking straight-on directly into the camera. This is a very smart way Franco allows the story to be told as richly, as detailed and as coherently as he can, but the problem is that it just shows up too oddly and randomly. Though the split-screen format usually shows up for more than half of the movie, the times that it doesn’t, the movie works a hell of a lot more because we’re simply focusing on one thing, and one thing only. Not a billion other things that may or may not be happening, all due to the fact that these characters either seem to be making stuff up, or not seeing the picture clearly enough.
That said, I guess I can’t get on Franco’s case too much as a director for adapting the source-material the way it was written out to be, but it could have definitely been done a lot better. Then again though, maybe it couldn’t have. Maybe this is just one of those pieces of source-material that should stay in libraries, and far away from the script-writing desk. Because if you look closely at what Franco does here, he tries so many times to have this story pop-off the pages and onto the screen itself and in ways, it works. Usually when Franco is just letting the story tell itself, with no visual-flair or camera-tricky added to the proceedings. If two characters are talking about something, no matter whatever the hell it may be, it always seems to be interesting because it’s just a simple tale.
However, when Franco begins to get a little too hot for his own guns and start to add into too much “style” to jazz the whole thing up, it feels distracting, as if Franco needed some sort of mechanism to make this story seem a lot more inviting than it actually is. Because the fact of the matter remains, Faulkner’s source-material is some pretty down-beat stuff, and it’s definitely hard to make sure that material like that always stays intriguing or surprising. But that doesn’t happen here. Instead, I always knew that Franco was going to try something tricky and yet, still have it fall right back in his face. Can’t say that this is a terrible directorial-outing from Franco, as I do think he definitely shows more promise and ambition, than failure, but it’s still very clear that he may have bit-off a bit more than he could chew here, or heck, maybe even not enough.
Maybe a two-parter, miniseries on HBO would have done the trick? Who knows?
What hurts this movie a bit more, but what also keeps it still above the line of being considered “watchable” is the ensemble cast that Franco so sadly leaves behind, lost, confused and with nowhere to go. Since Franco is so clearly enamored with whatever he is doing behind-the-camera, it kind of sucks for the others since all they have to do is emote and give us compelling characters that deserved to be seen right in front of them on a big-screen, rather than on a bunch of words on countless pages. But despite their many, many efforts, the only one who really comes-off the best is Franco as Darl. It helps that Darl is definitely the center-piece of this story that Franco clearly positioned himself as being, but Franco still shows that he is a charismatic-figure to watch on the screen, even when he’s just being a bumbling, hillbilly idiot. Surely a bit different from what he did as Gator, or as Alien, but kind of the same idea, I guess.
Everybody else does what they can, but with Franco at the helm, they’re sort of just left to fend for themselves. Tim Blake Nelson makes absolutely no sense most of the time as Anse, the head-of-the-family, but is at least entertaining to watch and brings some much needed humor, and energy to a film that desperately needed some, and quick; Ahna O’Reilly is a pretty face, but she proves that she’s more than just that with her performance here as Dewey Dell, the type of girl that seems like she’s about to have a nervous-breakdown at any given moment; Jim Parrack is a fine fit as Crash, the tough, smarter one of the family and shows that even in his most bone-headed decisions, nobody would want to pick a smarts-battle with him; and the same thing that I said about Tim Blake Nelson here, could practically be said for Logan Marshall-Green and his performance as the highly messed-up and problematic baby of the family, Jewel, but has more of a negative-energy going on about him that makes you feel like he truly is apart of this family, for better and for worse. Oh, and even though Danny McBride may be constantly mentioned in the advertisements for this, don’t be fooled; the guy literally shows up for what seems to be maybe ten or 15 minutes, says a few things, uses a weak, Southern-accent, wears a nice farmer’s hat and walks away, presumably to finish the joint that he and Franco lit-up back-stage before shooting.
Consensus: Adapting William Faulkner’s source-material was no easy-feat to begin with, but As I Lay Dying shows us that that statement couldn’t be anymore truer, especially since James Franco himself seems so passionate about getting this material perfect, right down to the nitty, gritty bone, that he forgets what makes a movie worth watching in the first place: Cohesion.
5 / 10 = Rental!!