November 27, 2013
"As I Lay Dying" is not an easy sell as a commercial film. The title already intimates that it will be a depressing story about Death. It is based on the novel of an author, who, while being a Nobel Laureate, is not really known for being very easy to read -- William Faulkner. Hence, we can expect a film that is similarly hard to watch. Upon giving it a go, I am not wrong on both counts. But I was pleasantly surprised that I actually liked it.
This film is about the Bundrens, a poor but proud rural family from the boondocks of Mississippi. The mother Addie (Beth Grant) dies at the beginning of the film. Her husband Anse and their five children bring her coffin a long distance to Addie's hometown to be buried, in order to fulfill a dying wish. Along their long trip, we will get to know each character better as each one has his own little story to tell.
This is one very slow film which will strain the patience of the most moviegoers. The contemplative script is full of deep monologues as each character tells his version of life. It certainly reflects the style that Faulkner is famous for -- his stream of consciousness writing style as well as the multiple narrators.
This is the directorial debut of hard-working star James Franco, who has certainly gone a long way from when we first knew him as Harry Osborne in "Spider Man." He also wrote the adapted screenplay, bravely tackling a difficult source novel. He actually succeeds to interpret it very well for the big screen. Once you get the drift of this languid storytelling style, and his attention-grabbing split screen technique, you will be mesmerized and drawn in, despite the inherent bleakness of the plot. The imagery he used is compelling, as the grand country vistas contrast with intimate personal moments.
Easily the best performer in the cast is Tim Blake Nelson as the stubborn and irascible patriarch of the brood, Anse. He has most realistic portrayal with that hot-potato drawl of his, uttering the most maddening of pronouncements. There is actually humor to be found in all his unpleasantness.
The five Bundren children and the actors who play them, namely Cash (Jim Parrack), Darl (James Franco), Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green), Dewey Dell (Ahna O'Reilly) and little Vardaman (Brady Permenter), all have their moments. While Darl seemed to be the most centered of all the characters, ironically, it was James Franco who seemed to lack something in his portrayal. Maybe it is because we expect the most from him.
This film is not for everyone because of its glacial pace and dark brooding subject matter. But with the proper attitude and frame of mind, you may actually find this a fascinating rumination about life and mortality, as you immerse yourself in this grim slice of rural American life in the 1920s. 7/10.