It's right there in the first moment of As I Lay Dying. Half of the screen is black and the other half is occupied by the face of Addie Bundren (played by Beth Grant, who memorably was concerned about Sparkle Motion devotion in Donnie Darko). Addie stares right at the audience and unleashes a snippet of some real poetic Faulkner talk: "My father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time." It might as well be a line in the sand: if this is too pretentious or arty or poetic for you, then give up now. Soon, actor-cowriter-director James Franco will be throwing a steady stream of split-screens at you, accompanied by a mish-mash of voice-overs and characters breaking the fourth wall by talking straight into the camera. At first, it seems like the conceits of a student film created by some kid who saw too many Warhol movies in class. But here's the real surprise: Franco has made an honest-to-god art film, not just some poseur product.
I decided to revisit William Faulkner's 1930 novel, which serves as the basis for this film, before checking out what Franco had done with it. I had attempted it previously and had been unable to finish it. Faulkner's book is pretty arty itself, consisting of a series of first-person monologues narrating the events relating to the death and belated burial of Addie Bundren, wife of Anse Bundren and mother of 4 boys and a girl. With so many points of view and a bevy of slightly tweaked dialects and this pervasive sense of impending doom, I originally found myself exhausted about halfway through reading it. But this time I was captivated, and I realized that I was stupid enough the first time to quit on the book just before its finest passage: a chapter narrated by the late Addie Bundren herself, where she muses on love and death, and reveals that she asked to be buried in the town where she was born as revenge on her family. This makes the ill-fated journey being recounted Addie's perverse reward.
Franco and his co-writer Matt Rager have the good sense to try to squeeze in a good portion of Addie's wonderful monologue, as they obviously tried to find places for many of the finest prose moments from Faulkner's novel. In fact, while the text has obviously passed through the filter of Franco's sensibility -- which, besides the obvious use of the split-screens, amounts to a kind of Malickian dreaminess without Malick's lush cinematography -- the film version of As I Lay Dying is a surprisingly good reflection of the book. If anything is sorely missing, it would just be that constant uncanny feeling from the book that this journey is fated from the first moment to end in a Pyrrhic victory.
In place of that, Franco presents us with a wonderfully realized collection of character studies, brought to life by a great cast. Franco puts himself in what was the book's central role, Darl, although he is stripped here of most of his monologues, which kind of puts the character on even footing with everyone else: Darl's older brother Cash (Jim Parrak), a carpenter who built the coffin that the family is carting miles from home to be buried; his petulant younger brother Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green), who rides his own horse instead of joining the others in the wagon with the coffin; his younger sister Dewey Dell (Ahna O'Reilly), who is naively sweet but is keeping a secret from her family; and the littlest child, Vardaman (Brady Permenter), who comes to understand his dead mother as being a fish. The patriarch of this clan is Anse Bundren, whose single-mindedness to heed his wife's burial wishes causes nothing but heartache. Of course, Faulkner's masterstroke at the end of the novel is to reveal that Anse had his own selfish ulterior motive for taking the trip, revealing so much more about his relationship to his late wife.
When I originally looked at the cast list and saw Anse was being played by Tim Blake Nelson from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I thought this was a mistake. First off, I was sure Nelson is too young and too energetic of an actor to be appropriate. It turns out I was dead wrong, because he turns in what might be the finest performance of the film. Nelson mumbles most of his lines (Anse is supposed to be nearly toothless, after all) and still encompasses Anse's stubbornness, self-righteousness, deviousness, and ignorance, while sometimes making him tragic and sometimes making him silly. It's really a piece of work.
Franco's Pineapple Express and This Is The End costar Danny McBride makes a brief but surprisingly straitlaced appearance as Vernon Tull, Anse's skeptical friend who tries to convince them to bury his wife closer to their home.
There is very little to fault about this 1.78:1 presentation. Occasionally during some of the split-screens, there is a lack of fine-detail in the image and some minor aliasing around the actual line where the split occurs. During some of the low-light scenes, there is perceptible grain, but this seems to be a product of the digital cinematography and not the DVD transfer. All of these instances are fairly isolated and nitpicky, however, and I doubt most viewers would take issue with the way the DVD looks.
The soundtrack is presented in both English 5.1 and 2.0 mixes. The 5.1 mix is atmospheric and extremely effective at submerging the viewer in the world of the film. There are also Spanish subtitles and English SDH.
Pretty perfunctory. The features kick off with a fairly standard-issue Behind-The-Scenes EPK (3:43). Then, there are 9 Cast and Crew Interviews, which are just extended clips of the same footage used in the EPK. They range in length from 52 seconds (producer Rob Van Nordern) to 6 minutes (James Franco, natch), and altogether total around 25 minutes. There's not a lot of meaty info in this material, but it is admittedly kind of nice to have the more complete version of the interview subjects' thoughts represented rather than just the chopped-up EPK version.
Plus there is a trailer for the film, as well as trailers for Parkland, The Iceman, 1, Killing Season, and Plush.
While the DVD extras are fairly unenlightening, the main feature is remarkable. Certainly, it will be polarizing, and those folks turned off by experimental filmmaking are not likely to be converted by this film. But, if offbeat approaches to storytelling don't scare you away, you might also be pleasantly caught off guard by this odd little film. Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and lifelong movie buff. You can check out the folk-rock music documentary he directed, Making Lovers & Dollars.