Even as it never fully justifies its existence, James Franco's plaintively raw Cormac McCarthy adaptation "Child of God" fascinates like a song sung just out of tune but rhythmically sturdy enough to keep you listening in the hopes it'll right itself.
McCarthy's character study of a mentally degenerating Tennessee hills outcast named Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) — abandoned as a child, now a grunting flouter of civilization — argues a view of humanity that makes nature vs. nurture seem pointless. The story, faithfully rendered by co-writer/director/Southern-gothic-aficionado Franco, graphically depicts Lester's feral descent from angry rifle-toting hermit and thorn in the side of the sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) to romantically attached necrophiliac (after finding a dead girl in a roadside car, he makes a "house" with her) to, in the third act, full-on serial killer.
Haze's committed turn is a visceral tour de force, his guttural exhortations practically their own language, while Franco (who gives himself a brief cameo) has the narrative drive and smoky mix of poetic/primal backwoods imagery in lockstep. "Child of God" is a whole of sorts, but its source faithfulness and folksy grimness may seem too simplified overall to bring true impact to the psychological and physical horror on display.
"Child of God."
MPAA rating: R for disturbing aberrant sexual content, nudity, language and some violence.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.