There is a moment right at the end of the first act of Child of God wherein Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) walks across a fairground carrying two giant stuffed animals, moving in the direction of a mother and her two daughters. The youngest of the daughters looks in the direction of the dingy, crude main character and observes his prizes. He returns her gaze. It is simultaneously the most touching and the most frightening moment of a film that seriously lacks in the first category and is saturated in the second. The exchange hits on two separate levels because it showcases the clearest hint of what Lester Ballard might have been. There, illuminated by the fireworks exploding in the Appalachian sky overhead, Ballard’s face displays both a potential and desire for normalcy. Maybe even compassion. But, as is often the case with events marked by firework displays, this moment marks a transition, the last evening before the events of Ballard’s life spin into a very dark place.
From this point forward, there is no entertainment in the film; there is no joy to be had in the viewing. From here, the loose plot offers murder, assault, necrophilia, and the behavior of a budding backwoods serial killer. Every minute after this one is an unpleasant one, which might go a long way in explaining why Child of God currently holds an abysmal 38 % positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But, as I write this, it occurs to me that one of my favorite things about this film is the way that it serves as evidence to my theory that Rotten Tomatoes (and really, any single value of standard measurement) is as effective in measuring the worth of a film as a ruler is effective in measuring the amount of water in a bucket. The truth is, Child of God was the bravest and sincerest new film I watched in 2014.
Think of how we’ve seen Ballard before this fairgrounds transition. Yes, much of the opening is reserved for displaying his animalistic, predatorial means of survival– the way he is forced to live like an animal in the old, forested hillsides. And yes, we’ve witnessed his growling, spitting voice sometimes form words which sometimes form sentences, and we’ve even seen him defecate directly into the camera before wiping with a stick. Lester Ballad, by societal terms, is orphaned, and in a more accurate description, he is feral. But what lies in the smaller mannerisms and actions of Scott Haze’s brilliant portrayal? Notice that when Ballard encounters a sleeping and naked woman in the woods, he first tries clumsily to help her. And notice that as she stands and exposes her mostly nude body, he looks shyly away. An act of decency. Further, when Ballard is placed in a holding cell, charged with the rape of the woman who refused his assistance, he attempts to make friends with a fellow inmate. He offers a friendly farewell and borrows the criminal’s jail-cell ballad. There is a hope for humanity, decency, and acceptance in Ballard in these early scenes, but what chance is it ever given? And does it disappear there? Later, after his downward spiral, Ballard’s corpse role-playing is built of emulation. His conversation with the cadaver echoes concepts he has witnessed from the outside of society.
Of course, none of this works without Scott Haze’s unshakeable performance. The actor’s illustration of this character feels like one that is unprecedented. The most immediate comparison I can think to make is Joaquin Phoenix’s turn in P.T. Anderson’s The Master, but even that measurement fails to make the point. As Ballard, Haze mines psychological depths that lie much farther beneath the human id than anything Phoenix was asked to uncover as Freddie Quell. When Child of God reaches its lowest points, it is Haze who makes it possible to feel sad for Ballard without feeling sympathetic. Haze is the reason our hearts break unnoticed beneath our immediate reactions of repulse.
I’ve written at length about my affection for rural, regional films with plots influenced or informed by poverty. The story of Child of God takes place in Tennessee, but much of the movie was filmed in West Virginia in an area just a few miles away from where I was raised. Given that connection, it would seem that Director James Franco, in his adaptation of the early Cormac McCarthy novel, is appealing directly to my traditional affinities. But, Child of God is unlike any film I’ve ever seen, either within or outside of the makeshift genre I call “hick lit.” The story of Lester Ballard is one that measures the necessity of society by documenting the absence of its influence. Ballard is a man ruined by nature’s adoption and nurture’s abandonment.
Toward the close of the film, Ballard, running from a vengeful mob that rightfully brings to mind old tellings of Frankenstein’s monster, escapes deep inside a cave and bursts through a hole in the ground. The image is that of a biological birth. Something natural and new. But what existence is Ballard born into here, and of what is he conceived?