Based on the 1930 classic – supposedly penned over six weeks and never edited by Faulkner, the story follows the family of dying Addie Bundren (a pained Beth Grant) and their individual thought processes during the subsequent bereavement. After her death, they embark on a perilous journey to Jefferson to bury her body as her last request.
Regardless of its nomination (Un Certain Regard Award) at Cannes this year, this film comes across – whether it’s Franco’s intention or not – as a grossly self-indulgent project that will alienate some of his fan base. The choice of split-screen is a curious one, though it’s perhaps clear the director aims to depict certain emotions/inner thoughts in the moment while setting the surroundings in a wider shot as they are felt. It’s unfortunate to say this technique interrupts the unhurried flow for such a non-action feature, and the compilation does not feel altogether satisfactorily realised. In other parts, there is a bizarre use of slow motion that feels even more out of place, going against the grain of sentiment at the time.
Franco’s casting is commendable, with Franco playing one of the brothers, Darl, opposite some fine performances from Logan Marshall-Green and Jim Parrack as the other adult brothers, Ahna O’Reilly as the sole female family member trying to deal with ‘women’s issues’, and the hugely talented character actor Tim Blake Nelson as toothless father Anse whose only concern is getting new nashers.
Near incoherent dialogue aside, the characters’ distain for family commitment, selfishness and frustrating communication problems radiate through. It’s a wonder how, but there is some empathy as much a curiosity as to how their family unit will end up that drives a glimmer of intrigue to the end – rewarded with a twist. The trouble is some of the journey is as slow and laborious as the horse-and-cart transport the family takes. If it weren’t for some graphic scenes and some darkly comic irony, the whole purpose would be long lost.
Franco is a talented filmmaker and actor, but his choice of subject matter and technique is an acquired taste here. As I Lay Dying feels very much like a ‘made for the festivals circuit and future film accolades’ production, a sort of high-brow academic effort of feature-length budget stature. Let’s hope it exercises some of Franco’s aspirations, as Anse seems to be the only winner in the end.