As I lay Dying is the competent and interesting directorial debut from actor, writer and modern artist James Franco, whose career is quickly becoming just as interesting as the art he produces. Here he brings to the big screen a 1930s modernist novel by William Faulkner about a family dedicated to burying their dead mother in the town of her choice. This involves a long-winded and sometimes harrowing road trip, although the family members have a good go at remaining optimistic along the way.
Faulkner’s novel is a mix of multiple narratives and character voices and Franco, with enthusiastic help of cinematographer Christina Voros, tries to emulate this. The split-screen effect is often utilised to varying degrees of success. Sometimes it works well, providing us with the view of things usually held outside the realms of the screen (such as the object a character is seeing when they are first seen looking at it). More often than not, however, it feels overly-artistic and a distraction from the emotional side to the drama; a side which Franco seems in earnest to focus on.
They acting is good, especially from Franco himself as one of the sons, Darl, although his portrayal arguably lacks the unsettling underlying energy Faulkner invested in the character. Tim Blake Nelson has a good time playing the patriarchal figure who spends a lot of his time moaning about his non-existent teeth and thinking of his own comfort.
The journey depicted in the film is supposed to be hard and unforgiving and to an extent that’s what the audience is made to experience. There are flashes of The Grapes of Wrath here, along with other road movies, but the hand-held camera-work keeps it all feeling fresh and new despite being based on an 80-year-old text.
It could have been 20 minutes shorter and there is a layer of pretentiousness about some of Franco’s stylistic choices. However we must remember that this is the work of an actor-turned-filmmaker and for a debut feature it has a lot of good things on its side. I just wonder how viewers will take to it.
As I Lay Dying (2013), directed by James Franco, will be shown at the BFI London Film Festival from October 10. Details on screenings can be found here.