Length: 120 minutes
Release Date: October 22, 2013
Directed by: James Franco
Stars: 3 out of 5
Adapting one of the most famous works of twentieth-century literature into a film worthy of sharing its name would be a herculean task for even the most seasoned director. In his best-known directorial effort to date, James Franco wields a deft hand in bringing William Faulkner’s classic novel to life. “As I Lay Dying” is foremost a respectful adaptation. It trumpets technical tricks, beautiful visual sequences, and solid performances to capture the dark essence of this Southern Gothic extraordinaire.
The novel “As I Lay Dying” is distinguished by fifteen narrators, fifty-nine chapters, and a pervasive stream-of-consciousness style. For many, it’s difficult to digest even in an unhurried academic setting. Despite the book’s intricacies, Franco and Matt Rager, a classmate from Yale, make a formidable attempt at helming the screenplay. They steer clear of heavy-handed dialogue; in lesser hands, a Faulkner adaptation could easily fall prey to the recklessness of an overly adventurous writer. But Franco doesn’t seek to redefine the Bundren family’s fraught journey to bury its deceased matriarch, laid out in complex, fragmented, and rolling monologues throughout the novel. Instead, with the sensible use of a few smart camera techniques, Franco manages to achieve an authentic, cinematic conversion of a work of literature that many have claimed is unsuited to the silver screen.
Poverty-stricken and embittered by the stark realities of its destitute Mississippi homestead, the Bundren clan awaits and prepares for the death of matriarch Addie. The audience is treated to snippets of the lives and psyches of each family member, from temperamental son Jewel to eldest child Cash. Once Addie succumbs to her fate, the family sets out to fulfill her wish for a burial in nearby Jefferson where she was born. Her body is enclosed in a barebones, unleveled wooden coffin made by Cash. But exposed to the constant sun and heat, Addie’s body quickly begins to decompose, emitting an unpleasant odor that follows the family from town to town. But this is just one of the many perils and setbacks the Bundrens face during their arduous trip.
Given its premise, the film could have devolved into a dark Southern saga indistinguishable from others in the genre. Franco, however, pays considerable attention to execution. The cinematic recreation of Faulkner’s baroque prose and structure derives strength from the integration of split screens and direct-to-camera shots. Largely concentrated to the first half of the movie, these techniques drive the plot organically, thanks to Christina Voros’ fluid camerawork and Franco’s editing. Split screens are used to illustrate a single event from multiple character perspectives or different angles; direct-to-camera narrations are lifted straight from the novel, including young Vardaman’s poignant and famous five-word monologue-chapter, “My mother is a fish.” Through these techniques, viewers get a feel for the bevy of disparate viewpoints and isolation that pervades the story.
Greens and browns dominate the scenery, an appropriately drab and moody backdrop that visually reflects the Bundren’s impoverished background and treacherous ordeal. The actors, too, settle comfortably into their roles as barren Southerners without resorting to outright caricatures. Beth Grant and Tim Blake Nelson assume the roles of Addie and Anse Bundren, deceased wife and self-absorbed husband obsessed with finding a new set of teeth in Jefferson. The talented team of James Franco, Jim Parrack, Brady Permenter, and Logan Marshall-Green portray the four sons Darl, Cash, Vardaman, and Jewel. As the lone daughter, Ahna O’Reilly turns in an honest performance as pregnant teenager Dewey Dell.
Driven by a unique story or agenda, each character also operates independent of the shared journey. From Cash’s leg injury to Dewey Dell’s search for an abortion, the film maneuvers between these individual tales and the family’s collective pilgrimage without sacrificing dramatic urgency. Among the numerous plot points is Anse’s exploitation of his children, Vardaman’s struggle to cope with his mother’s death, and the family’s desperate attempt to cross a river with coffin in tow. The dysfunctional family is a common presence on movie screens, but the Faulkner treatment a la Franco is a solidly engaging rendition.
Franco packs a triple punch with his starring role as Darl. While his turn as the second eldest Bundren child lacks somewhat in nuance, the well-rounded and powerful cast overcomes any minor quibbles about his acting. Furthermore, the film benefits from his directorial and writing contributions, which is less rambling and more cohesive than one would expect. Timothy O’Keefe’s haunting score serves as another high point, a musical imagining of Faulkner’s literary style. “As I Lay Dying” strives for authenticity and succeeds to the satisfaction of cinephiles and literary buffs.