Millennium Entertainment // 2013 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 6th, 2013
From the classic novel by William Faulkner
I can understand the temptation to adapt Fitzgerald and Hemingway. They both usually have some kind of recognizable plot underneath their respective prose styles. Glomming on to that plot can get would-be screenwriters somewhere, even if it's still difficult to translate either Fitzgerald or Hemingway's prose style to the movies. Those who approach Faulkner, though, only confuse me. Faulkner's plots are generally more opaque and more depressing, but less important than his contemporaries. What makes Faulkner amazing decades later is the way he weaves a world with his peculiar mix of detail and the "stream of consciousness" style he often adopted. Every attempt to adapt his plots (like The Sound and the Fury) fails miserably, and trying to adapt the stream of consciousness style leads to films that are impenetrably avant-garde (at least for most viewers), losing even the sometimes-limited accessibility of Faulkner's work. Leave it to James Franco to try anyway. His version of As I Lay Dying tries to hew a middle path, giving us the plot of a grieving family transporting their matriarch, while also presenting with a number of split-screen scenes that try to capture the flavor of Faulkner's narration. It's not entirely successful, but as with many of Franco's weird projects, it has its own charms.
Faulkner's novel is famously narrated by fifteen characters in fifty-nine chapters. This adaptation mainly focuses on Darl Bundren (James Franco, who also directs) as his mother Addie (Beth Grant, No Country for Old Men) passes away. Darl, along with father Anse (Tim Blake Nelson, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and brother Cash (Jim Parrack, Battle: Los Angeles) must take Addie to be buried two days' journey away in Jefferson. Addie's death brings many festering wounds to the surface in this strange, small enclave.
The best thing that can be said for As I Lay Dying is that it's a faithful adaptation. The script, co-written by Franco and Matt Rager, hits all the major plot points of the novel, which includes everything from a pregnancy to an amputation. The setting and acting are both very naturalistic, with the steamy environment of Mississippi faithfully recreated. Everyone looks and acts the part of an undereducated laborer with zeal. Thankfully, Franco avoids any cockamamie attempt to give us Faulkner's narration ad nausea. His dialogue is faithful to the book, and the use of voiceover is limited. Instead, Franco gets as much as possible out of dialogue.
To carry the novel's style, he occasionally uses a split screen. Most of the time the split screen gives us two angles on the same scene, so we can watch two characters facing each other but reacting to the other. Sometimes it's used to give us two scenes, but this is rarer. It's a really smart choice on Franco's part. It keeps some of the flavor that having fifteen different narrators produces without slavishly dedicating the film to recreating their internal monologues. Combined with the occasional use of slow motion, the film maintains the slightly dreamlike quality of the novel without feeling forced or unnecessary.
Franco also had the smarts to cast a whole raft of excellent actors, starting with himself. He keeps his tics in check as Darl, and aside from a few moments late in the film, doesn't play to the cheap seats. Tim Blake Nelson is almost unintelligible as Anse, and that works strongly in the character's favor, giving him an authenticity that's admirable. She's only on screen for a bit, but Beth Grant makes an excellent Addie, her strength making it easy to understand why everyone starts to fall apart once she's dead. Even Danny McBride takes an unusually dramatic turn as a neighbor to the Bundrens.
This DVD does the film justice as well. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer on display is rich in detail and really sells the Deep South atmosphere that Franco conjures. Colors, especially greens and browns, are well-saturated, and black levels are deep and noise-free. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is similarly strong. Dialogue -- including the sometimes impenetrable accents -- is clean and clear from the front, while the surrounds give us environmental cues and atmosphere. Subtitles are thankfully included.
Extras start with a 4-minute making-of featurette. More substantial are the collection of interviews with the cast and crew, including Franco, Nelson, McBride, and co-writer Matt Rager that run several minutes apiece. Though a commentary track would have been nice, and even some scholarly input about the film (given Faulkner's strong presence on college syllabi) would have been nice. What's here isn't bad, but the film feels like it deserves more.
As I Lay Dying feels a bit like a pyrrhic victory. As I Lay Dying is one of Faulkner's greatest achievements, cataloging the world of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, though so many narrators and different incidents. It's a triumph of literary modernism and a classic of American literature. We didn't need Franco to give his stamp to us. It's not like watching the film will stand in as a Cliff's Notes version of the book; no film could replace the experience of reading the book (even if it is comforting to imagine a bunch of high school and college students renting this film instead of reading the book, only to be confronted with Tim Blake Nelson's crazy accent and all the split-screen scenes). Perhaps the film is too conservative, taking the film on too faithfully, and a more eclectic approach might have suited the material better.
The film is a minor achievement, winning points mainly for being conservative with an experimental classic. It's not a bad film by any stretch; it just can't live up to the greatness of its source material. Fans of James Franco might enjoy his turn here as a slightly unkempt Southerner, and the other actors deserve some kudos as well. Fans of the novel will want to see what Franco has done with the material, but the average filmgoer can feel free to skip this one unless they have a compelling interest.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Millennium Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated R