James Franco: poet, model, actor, novelist, director, teacher… People often poke fun at him, but that’s because he puts himself in dangerous positions and is prepared to take a fall in the pursuit of his art(s). Franco’s forays into film directing have not all been successful, but this time the man has got it right.

Child of God is based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name and it remains true to the book, including chapter headings and voiceovers taken from the text. This is a gothic horror about a temperamental outcast, Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) living in 1960s Tennessee. His mother ran off and his daddy hanged himself when Lester was just a boy, by the time we see Lester, he is a grown man with paranoid schizophrenic tendencies. The locals are exasperated and the sheriff’s patience is wearing thin as Lester snarls and staggers amongst them like a rabid dog. The sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) tries to contain Lester, but this man is beyond the law. His only companion is his rifle, the voiceover narrator stating that he once saw Lester shoot a spider from its web at the top of an oak tree. In the one comic scene of the film, we see Lester put this skill to good use at a travelling fair where he wins a menagerie of giant stuffed animals.

Although seemingly immune to fellow human company, Lester craves is companionship. When he comes across a young couple who have accidentally asphyxiated in their car, Lester has sex with the girl’s corpse, realising that here is his opportunity to have a girlfriend. He carries the girl back to his cabin and here we see Lester finally interacting with someone: he buys the girl clothes and accessories, brushes her hair and even courts her. Whenever he moves her, it is with great gentleness and he seems genuinely in love with his corpse bride.

However, the honeymoon doesn’t last forever and when a fire destroys the girl’s body, Lester is once more bereft. He heads further into the wild, just as his mind becomes more disconnected with reality. It is from here on in that the horrors begin.

Franco regular Scott Haze puts in a phenomenal performance as the damaged and feral Lester. Haze apparently lived isolated for three months prior to filming, and during the shoot he was kept apart from the cast and crew; this actor has just upped the ante in character preparation. Tim Blake Nelson also excels as the sheriff. Both men give a real sense of being part of the land. One criticism lies with Franco casting himself in a minor role. We are so surprised to see him that our focus shifts from the action and onto him. Unlike Haze and Nelson, we don’t have a sense of his belonging to that environment.

Overall, this is an exciting, mesmerising, and terrifying film. And to be moved by scenes of necrophilia has to be a film first. There’s also cracking original music by Aaron Embry and excellent cinematography by Christina Vorros, all of which combine to draw us into McCarthy’s tragic and terrible tale.