As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying

***

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

No one could fault James Franco for ambition. Not only is he an actor, an author, a comedian and an academic - but as a writer and director he has repeatedly set himself great challenges. His directorial feature debut The Broken Tower (2011) is a monochrome docudrama on the gay American poet (and suicide) Hart Crane, while his follow-up Interior. Leather Bar (2013, co-directed with Travis Mathews) is a heady blend of sexual politics, metacinema and gay hardcore, exposing the process of reimagining the lost 40 minutes of William Friedkin's Cruising (1980) for a different generation. Now, for his third feature As I Lay Dying, Franco dips into the stream (of consciousness) of William Faulkner's homonymous 1930 novel which, with its multiple narrators and modernist tics, practically defines unfilmable. And yet Franco chooses to film it.

The results are somewhat mixed. Reduced to its bare bones, Faulkner's story is simple: when Addie (Beth Grant), matriarch of the impoverished Bundren clan, falls ill and dies, her husband Anse (Tim Blake Nelson), her sons Darl (Franco), Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green), Cash (Jim Parrack) and the much younger Vardaman (Brady Parmenter), and her daughter Dewey Dell (Ahna O'Reilly) all agree, for different reasons, to fulfil Addie's last wishes by transporting her corpse cross-country to the distant town of Jefferson.

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There is always the risk that this sort of material could, once placed on screen, all too easily become a homespun rustic melodrama akin to Little House On The Prairie, or a western coffin epic like The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada or even Django. Yet to his immense credit, Franco never lets this happen, instead deploying a range of alienation effects - direct-to-camera addresses, flashbacks, unconventional editing, and most particularly split screens - to ensure that the narrative remains fragmented and dislocated throughout, in a genuinely arresting attempt to convert Faulkner's verbal experiments into the language of cinema. As I Lay Dying looks and sounds great, and offers many individual moments of heightened intensity.

Here's the problem, though. You can admire the way Franco allows much of the dialogue that he has co-written with Matthew Rager to be obliterated by backwoods Southern drawls, general muttering and (in Anse's case) a gummy inability to pronounce dentals. You can also admire the way Franco takes what is ostensibly the film's most thrillingly cinematic event - the disastrous attempt to ford a river - and reduces it to a chronology-confounding turmoil of impressionistic images, shot in slow motion to the accompaniment of some very subdued musique concrète. Yet all this stripping down, all this eschewal of the obvious, all this rejection of narrative norms, is never actually supplemented with anything substantial. Much as, during the course of As I Lay Dying, Cash loses the use of his leg, so the film too is forced to keep going forwards with its own mobility greatly diminished.

In a sense, the whole story of humanity is here. There is birth, sex, marriage, death, all compacted into a family odyssey in which secrets are revealed even as skeletons are buried. Yet Franco is all too successful in letting this story become overwhelmed by his mannered craft - and we end up with an extraordinarily well made film that, in keeping us at a distance and failing to engage our sympathies or antipathies for its characters, remains more toothless in the end even than old Anse.

Reviewed on: 25 Sep 2013
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The death of a family matriarch and her loved ones' efforts to have her buried according to her wishes.

Director: James Franco

Writer: James Franco, Matt Rager, based on the book by William Faulkner

Starring: mes Franco, Logan Marshall-Green, Beth Grant, Tim Blake Nelson, Ahna O'Reilly, Jim Parrack, Brady Parmenter, Danny McBride

Year: 2013

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: US


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