As I Lay Dying: James Franco Does William Faulkner

An "unfilmable" novel becomes an art movie of modest accomplishments and frustrations

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(From left) Actress Ahna O'Reilly, director and actor James Franco and actress Beth Grant arrive on May 20, 2013 for the screening of the film "As I Lay Dying" presented in the Un Certain Regard section at the 66th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes.

A Ph.D. candidate in English literature at Yale University recently wrote a review of the Baz Luhrmann movie adaptation of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. “The critics who’ve ravaged the film for not being loyal to the book are hypocrites,” he wrote. “These people make their living doing readings and critiques of texts in order to generate theories of varying levels of competency. Luhrmann’s film is his reading and adaptation of a text – his critique, if you will.”

(READ: Richard Corliss on The Great Gatsby)

That graduate student, James Franco, has also been a film actor of some note. Now he is the star and director of a film based on another famous novel written in the 1920s, William Faulkner‘s As I Lay Dying. Franco’s comments on movie critics nitpicking a Gatsby might have been a preemptive strike against reviews of his new picture, which has received its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section. And the movie, whose script he adapted with his Yale classmate Matt Rager, could be an elaborate summer project: attempting to find a cinematic language for Faulkner’s text — Franco’s critique, if you will. The effort is honorable, a mixture of mannerism and earned emotion.

(READ: Is James Franco the 21st Century’s First Great Public Intellectual?)

“My father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.” The speaker is Addie Bundren (Beth Grant), matriarch of a clan of Mississippi misfortunates that comprises her husband Anse (Tim Blake Nelson), her four sons Cash (Jim Parrack), Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green), Darl (Franco) and Vardaman (Brady Permenter), the youngest, and her teenage daughter Dewey Dell (Ahna Reilly). As Addie lays dying, Cash saws away outside in the rain fashioning her coffin. Jewel tames a beloved horse, Darl goes into town on a fool’s errand and Vardaman returns home with a fish about as big as he is.

Death for Addie might be a reprieve from the veil of tears that life in this rural shack has been. The Bundrens lack electricity, a car or any form of refrigeration — which would come in handy, considering that Addie’s remains are quickly decaying. “I am a luckless man,” observes the toothless Anse, who seems to regret his wife’s passing less than his lack of dentures. “God’s will be done,” he pronounces at the memorial service held in their rude home. “Now I can get them teeth.”

(READ: A 1939 cover story on William Faulkner by subscribing to TIME)

The odyssey the Bundrens take after her death could be another fool’s errand: transporting her body on a wagon for burial in the town of Jefferson, not far away. Buzzards are circling the coffin, and from the sky they can detect the stink of death. The flying scavengers might also detect the death throes of this family and their hardscrabble, anachronistic way of life. John Steinbeck’s Joads are Rockefellers compared to the Bundrens, who on their Cavalry road to Jefferson endure more plagues than Job, with fire and flood among them. By the time they get to Jefferson, Cash has lost his leg, Jewel his precious horse, Darl his freedom and Dewey Dell her sexual dignity. But Pa gets his new teeth, and something else to take home.

Faulkner told this story in a chorus of voices: 15 narrators in the 59 chapters. To locate an equivalent for the novel’s polyphonal scheme, Franco often employs split screens. They may give views of two characters, as when Ma is inside the shack beckoning to Cash outside; or additional perspectives of a single calamity, such as when Addie’s coffin is lost in a river. Sometimes we get two aspects of the same character from slightly different perspectives, as if showing Take One and Take Two. The device imposes a strange rhythm on the images. It distracts as often as it enlightens, and Franco himself seems to have tired of the tactic. He mostly dispenses with it halfway through the film.

(SEE: Faulkner in the all-TIME Top 100 English-Language Novels list)

Franco sometimes wanders from his naturalistic style into a mixture of dream and nightmare, as when Dewey Dell takes a kitchen knife used to cut fish, walks over to Darl and guts him. (Timothy O’Keefe’s music, which takes some of its cues from Bernard Herrmann’s scores, nicely increases the tension here, as it does throughout the movie.) But in many respects this is a faithful and intelligent synopsis of the book. Some of the shortest chapters are spoken to the screen by their characters: Varadman’s declaration that “My mother is a fish” and Cash’s enumeration of his 13 reasons for building his mother’s coffin on the bevel.

The cast, which includes Danny McBride (Franco’s costar in Pineapple Express) in a small role, shows similar fidelity to the inflections of these backwoods folk; at times the accents were so thick that the English-speaking audience at Cannes had to consult the French subtitles for clarity. It is an impressive ensemble, with the peculiar exception of Franco, who speaks as if he’s a distant Northern cousin visiting the Bundgens, and who can’t summon the ranting majesty for his climactic speech. He is stronger directing his fellow actors, achieving poignancy in small moments, such as young Vardaman asking of his dead mother, “Where’d she go? Did she go as far as town?” Cash replies, “She went farther than town.” In vignettes like this, the film of As I Lay Dying reveals itself as a successful summer project for a multitasking graduate student.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s take on James Franco and Danny McBride in Pineapple Express)

But that’s just one opinion of the film. For the definitive take, we must await James Franco’s review of his own film: his critique of his critique, if you will.

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