William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying like a man on fire, working days at a power plant and writing late into the night over four months. Franco directed his adaptation like a man on Adderall, writing the screenplay and playing Darl Bundren, and meanwhile studying for his Ph.D. in English, building a boat, and, like, translating Ulysses into Mandarin or whatever. The story's the same: Addie (the great Beth Grant), matriarch of the Bundren family, expresses her deathbed wish to be buried in the nearby town of Jefferson. This final request leads to a series of catastrophes: injury, destitution, betrayal, internal monologues. Franco, a fine actor himself, assembles an excellent cast including Danny McBride, Tim Blake Nelson, and Ahna O'Reilly. Franco's visual approach includes handheld cameras and the artless use of split-screens, often with two asynchronous shots of the same actor. This detaches the characters from any sense of narrative time, and the effect is particularly alienating when used in lieu of over-the-shoulder shots during conversations, especially given Franco's fondness for pairing the actors' vocal tracks with still shots of their nonspeaking faces. There's a lot of self-indulgent experimentation, but when it works, the film produces an undeniable sense of anxiety, as if being seen from the viewpoint of someone with major depressive disorder. To be fair, that describes a lot of Faulkner characters. The novel resists easy understanding, yielding only to close examination over an extended period, rewarding the reader who slows down, backs up, rereads passages-- a particular engagement with the text that's impossible in a theater. As a result, the book's complexities fly by, often incomprehensibly, onscreen.
James FrancoJames Franco, Tim Blake Nelson, Danny McBride, Logan Marshall-Green, Ahna O'Reilly, Jim Parrack, Beth Grant, Jesse Heiman, Scott HazeJames Franco, Matt RagerMillennium Entertainment