Faulkner. Franco. Faulkner. Franco. Say those names in quick succession and they’ll eventually become one. Well, not quite, but that’s the chopped up method attempted by James Franco – he directs, co-writes and stars in this fairly faithful adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
The stream-of-consciousness novel, dating back to 1930, is somewhat digestible in comparison to The Sound and the Fury, yet still a challenge to bring to the screen. Not that you’d tell by Franco’s assured, very serious vision, which maintains the technique of switching narrators. Even a small role for Danny McBride isn’t for comic relief.
The Bundren family are brought together by a crisis when their mother (Beth Grant) dies and needs to be buried elsewhere. Dragging the coffin becomes a semi-Sisyphus affair, both as a physical task and through escalating tensions within the group.
Led by the father (Tim Blake Nelson), small squabbles percolate through the distracted family; Dewey (Ahna O’Reilly) is troubled by an unwanted pregnancy, Cash (Jim Parrack) breaks his leg, Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green) feels like an outsider, Dahl (Franco) has his mind elsewhere, and 10-year-old Vardaman (Brady Permenter) is like a kid from Outnumbered.
However, like the novel, the star is the shifting narration – the screenplay even manages to include a monologue from the mother long after her death. Franco frequently splits the screen, sometimes for thematic juxtaposition (on one side Dahl stares forlorn, opposite him is a fire), other times for a second angle of the same event. It’s occasionally off-putting and admittedly irritating, but it’s also a bold way to shift perspectives; occasionally, the voiceover crosses spills into the silence like a Venn diagram.
Some viewers might find the split screen too much to handle. Indeed, the final credits flashing on and off is definitely a step too far. For the rest, the mournful atmosphere carries into artful shots of what is ultimately a futile exercise – a resentful family suffer through various obstacles, with the rotting corpse weighing heavier by the moment. (Dahl comments, “What’s in the box? It ain’t going to go away.”)
With some fairly weighty religious undertones thrown in, As I Lay Dying needs someone like Franco’s arrogance to take an ambitious project so whole-heartedly. And for that, it’s a commendable effort. Just beware that it doesn’t just split the screen – it splits the audience.
As I Lay Dying is part of the London Film Festival’s “Dare” strand. Screening information can be found here.