In Christ Jesus you are all children of God, Galatians 3 v 26
In Georgian England asylums allowed the general public to turn up and have a laugh at the inmates. The management would have regarded the star of Child of God as a great draw for the ha’penny-paying crowds. Over two centuries since people lined up to stare at unfortunates we’re again being asked to pay to watch the antics of the unwell in the new film from James Franco.
Quite how repulsive Lester Ballard’s character would be was not made clear in the film notes. They say he ‘falls deeper into crime and degradation.’ That’s understating things, as though I said I’ve got a bit of a bad back at the moment. Even though the role is horrific, Lester Ballard is well played by Scott Haze who went all method, moved to Tennessee and lived in an isolated cabin in preparation for the grim role. He gives an impressive performance as Ballard who is rather more than the local misfit in small town 1950s America that he might appear at the start. Clearly mentally ill, he is left to fend for himself, living wild with no friends and only occasional unpleasant encounters with other humans. Despite numerous run-ins with the local police he is – in an Only in America way – allowed to carry a rifle.
The book on which the film is based was written by Cormac McCarthy, and was itself based on the real life serial killer who was the inspiration for Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Two films about your life is two more than most people get and you might think that the killer had had enough coverage already. However James Franco wanted to look closely at the isolation of someone pushed out of civilised society. Knowing he would be asked the question Why did you make this film? he asked McCarthy why he wrote the book, but got no useful answer. Franco himself was attracted by the ‘bumbling’ nature of the killer, the way he is not very good at what he does. Is that a good enough reason to make a film? Just because this one has difficulties moving the bodies do we really need another serial killer movie? (Like Blackadder’s potato, that’s a rhetorical question).
Most of these types of movie look at the killer through the eyes of a sheriff or detective tracking him down. Here the killer is the lead role. Whilst making the film Franco was inspired by Taxi Driver. Franco sees Ballard as similar to Scorsese’s anti-hero – a crazy guy at the centre of the action who nevertheless remains compelling. Certainly Haze’s performance is extreme, and after an early excretement scene you know that things are going to be deliberately crude. Sex breaks no taboos, so Ballard’s lifestyle features necrophilia. Franco says that Ballard’s character can be used to study what is inside us all. Extremes are certainly easier to portray, but there’s little insight into humanity that can’t be discovered more pleasantly.
No doubt the position of the mentally ill in society needs examining. To leave them in this situation is not acceptable, but it is not necessary to spend 104 minutes in Ballard’s company to realise that. Things have changed since the Fifties, indeed they had changed since 1770, when asylum visiting by the general public was ended. The subject needs attention, but attention of a more academic sort. A fast-paced, hand-held camera approach suggests entertainment. It is a shame that such a visceral performance as Haze has produced is in such a coarse movie. The pedestaling of mentally ill killers continues.