“As I Lay Dying” is James Franco’s adaptation of the 1930 novel by American author William Faulkner. Narrated in the munched southern accent of a fictional county, the story – recounted as it unfolds by seven different characters – sees a family’s odyssey to bring their dead mother to her forefathers’ grave site. The film first premiered in Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section and will screen at the London Film Festival on the 13th and 15th of October.
“As I Lay Dying” opens with Addie Bundren (Beth Grant) already on her death bed as she is nursed by her daughter, Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly). There is no doubt about her approaching fate, it is only a matter of time, and, just to remind her of that, her son Cash (Jim Parrack), is building a coffin with skilful care right under her window; as Anse (Tim Blake Nelson) – the family patriarch – states: “she’s a-going”. Addie Bundren dies that same evening while her two other sons Darl (James Franco) and Jewel (Logan Marshall-Greene) were out making a delivery to a nearby farm. Vardaman (Brady Permenter), the youngest of the brothers, thinks his mother has turned into a fish when, after catching one himself and killing it, he comes home to discover she is dead too. After a short funeral function at the family’s farm the group sets off to reach Jefferson where they will bury the dead Mrs Bundren.
The journey soon turns into a survival quest after the cart, along with the coffin, are nearly swept away by an engrossed river, resulting in the death of the two mules driving the cart and a broken leg for Cash. The family has to stop to ask for help but as time goes by and the days grow warmer the corpse begins to rot causing a horrible stench. The Bundrens encounter ever more dismissal from the townspeople they come across; and we also learn that Dewey Dell is pregnant with an unwanted child and that she is trying to get an abortion but she is constantly refused the medicine. In the meantime, Cash’s leg has gone gangrene after Darl’s suggestion to fix it by plastering it with cement. Given the long journey and the close relationship, all the characters come to clash with each another making Addie Bundren’s journey to her graveyard a true odyssey.
The film captures precisely the brutality and grittiness of the world depicted by Faulkner and cleverly transposes its literary techniques with equivalent cinematic devices. The narration by multiple points of view is here rendered with a split screen in which we see the same action happening at the same time but as seen by different characters, whilst the interior monologue is conveyed either through voice over or by the characters directly addressing the viewer. Excellent performances – especially by Blake Nelson, O’Reilly, Marshall-Greene and the young Permenter – add to the sense of disquiet which surrounds this rather bizarre quest. As a reader of the book I was hooked from beginning to the end but noticed some scenes were overly stretched for the cinematic retelling of the story, although sparked from a wish to adhere to the original material as much as possible. The film’s downturn is something I noticed as shared by most of Franco’s films: as a director he masterfully moulds excellent performances in all his actors, but as an actor-director he somehow fails to be as incisive as the rest of the cast, making it almost distracting. Still, “As I Lay Dying” is a must see especially for those interested in adaptation and cinematic language as the film is a clever example in the use of techniques which break the ‘rules’ but are here employed to great cinematic effect. Franco’s rendition of Faulkner is certainly worth of praise for its originality and adherence to the novel, less so for his performance in the film.
“As I Lay Dying” will be available to download on iTunes from the 22nd of October.