Saturday, September 28, 2013

AS I LAY DYING - LFF 2013 - Preview

As the anticipation builds for the London Film Festival, you may find that a lot of the obvious hot tickets are already sold out. So I thought I'd give a shout out to some of the more under the radar movies that you can still buy tickets for, here, at the time of writing.

James Franco's directorial d├ębut AS I LAY DYING is just such a film.  The actor, artist and writer has made his own adaptation of William Faulkner's novel, and brought it to screen with a starry cast and an earnest fidelity to the source material.  It's the tale of a family of poor farmers in the American South of the early twentieth century.  This may be a country of motor cars, but their existence remains one of poverty, ignorance and superstition.  The dying mother's last wish is to be buried in the town of Jefferson, and much of the movie chronicles the physical and emotional toll that the journey to Jefferson, decaying body in tow, has on her husband and children.  

Anse, her husband, is staunch and strict, burdened with rotting teeth and selfish needs. His portrayal by Tim Blake Nelson begins comic - a spoof of Cletus the Slack Jawed Yokel, complete with rotting teeth - but becomes more sinister as the movie progresses.  The three grown sons - Darl, Jewel and Cash - are plagued by doubts, conflicted desires and take the physical and mental toll worst.  I'm not sure if James Franco ever really convinces as the mentally fragile Darl, but Logan Marshall-Green is devastatingly moving as Jewel  - the son who doesn't agree with the journey but can't quit it either.  And Jim Parrick, as Cash, is as close as we get to a sympathetic everyman in this story.  Meanwhile, kid brother Vardaman, seems the most slippery, and sister Dewey Dell (Alma O'Reilly) is hiding a secret that contributes to Darl's ultimate fall. 

When the movie works, it works because it faithfully transcribes Faulkner's haunting, slippery style.  There's a heavy use of voiceover and different, sometimes misleading, points of view.  This is not a movie you should watch if you don't like hearing peasants speak in vaguely pretentious terms of life and death.  I suppose one could argue that there are things that work on the page that seem absurd on the screen, I'm not sure how one could try to translate Faulkner, and his style, without this device.  Where I think the movie is in more troubling territory is when Franco makes a stylistic choice that has nothing to do with Faulkner. Most notably, he uses a split screen, showing two characters from different angles, sometimes engaged in conversation with each other, at other times with a separate conversation overlaid on the audio track. Maybe Franco's trying to make a point about how disconnected the family is? Either way, it's an alienating device for the audience, that undermines the intimacy that the voiceover is trying to create. 

Overall, AS I LAY DYING is still perhaps the most faithful adaptation of Faulkner's novel as you're likely to see, and has moments of visual beauty - and in Logan Marshall-Green's performance - great strength.  It's not always successful, but at least Franco's taking chances. 

AS I LAY DYING has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated R in the USA.   The movie played Cannes 2013 and will play London 2013.  It will be released in Portugal on October 10th 2013. It will be available as VOD in the USA on October 22nd and on DVD on November 5th. It will open in the Netherlands on November 21st. 

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