I’ve been a fan of James Franco since seeing him in the short-lived Freaks and Geeks. Whether you love or hate him, denying that the man has talent is tantamount to deluding yourself. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not really a fan of the Sam Raimi Spiderman films. When first learning that the man responsible for one of my favorite horror franchises was bringing one of my favorite childhood comic books to the big screen, I couldn’t help but allow myself to get lost in the endless possibilities. I’m not saying they’re bad films, or that Franco didn’t turn in good performances in all of them, they just weren’t for me. I’m not familiar with the works of Faulker, that is to say, that I haven’t read them personally. I am aware of their existence, and to some degree, the style and which they were written, but going into Franco’s directorial experiment, I am totally ignorant of the source material in which it was based. From what I’ve read by those that have both seen this film, AND are familiar with the source material, it seems to be a fairly accurate representation. Though, I just wanted to disclose right up front, I will be reviewing this as a movie only, and not making comparisons.
I didn’t know what to expect from As I Lay Dying. Fresh after seeing my favorite film of 2013, This Is The End, I was browsing around on IMDB, and saw this little film that was directed by, and starred James Franco, as well as Danny McBride, even though he’s barely in the film at all, and Jim Parrack, who played Hoyt, one of the more tolerable character from HBO’s True Blood, that has in my opinion, far outlived its effectiveness. Nevertheless, seeing that cast, and learning that the film was directed by Franco as a sort of experiment, As I Lay Dying definitely had my attention. Shortly thereafter, I received an email from the PR firm that was promoting the film, asking if I wanted a DVD to review, so I jumped at the opportunity, and here we are.
As I Lay Dying, while great, is not going to be for everyone. It’s going to be jarring for some of you that are unfamiliar with Faulker, and especially for those of you that need a film to adhere to the standard narrative rules. With such beefy subject matter, and so many different characters that play integral roles in the story, Franco opts to use a lot of split-screen style storytelling. This is a gimmick that was made popular by the TV show 24, and it has been done to death at this point, but the way in which it is utilized in As I Lay Dying works quite well. There are scenes where you can see two different characters at the same time, and others where you have a conversation going on on half of the screen, and what I can only imagine was some of the more descriptive details playing out through visuals on the other side of the screen, or then you have some creative shots where both screens are focused on the same scene, however one side of the screen approaches from a different angle. In any event, even if you’re tired of the split-screen style, rest assured that it is both necessary at times, as well as highly effective.
The real star of the show here, though, is unquestionably the performances. It takes incredible range for an actor, especially actors that have been typecast up until this point to even take on a role like this, but almost everyone in the film turns in phenomenal performances. Yes, even Danny McBride, and no he is not playing Kenny Powers. I made a comment while watching the film that I can’t wait for some director to realize the potential, and cast McBride as the lead in a more serious role. I mean, think back to Ashton Kutcher, and how amazing he was in The Butterfly Effect. Like Danny, Ashton had done pretty much nothing but slapstick up until that point. Franco was great as he always is, and Parrack was impressive as well. Though the entire story is about the family trying to get her corpse in the ground, Beth Grant does an exceptional job portraying Addie Bundren, and delivers some of the more memorable dialog, both while she’s in the act of dying, as well as in flashback/dream sequences later in the film.
Overall, As I Lay Dying, to me, is an exceptional film. It’s going to be divisive among those that see it though, with the possibility of alienating both fans of Faulkner’s works, as well as those that are completely unfamiliar. I love seeing artists take chances with projects like this, especially someone as successful as James Franco already is. It gives me hope for the future of film. As I Lay Dying will be doing a limited theatrical run starting November 5th, and will also be available to rent on most VOD platforms.