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As I Lay Dying (DVD Review)

As-I-Lay-Dying whysoblu poster-001Whether or not you knew this already, modern renaissance man/seemingly always squinting actor James Franco has not only been starring in films, but he has also tried his hand at directing several times.  One of his latest efforts is an adaptation of the William Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying, which is considered to be one of the best novels of the 20th century.  As a film, it is a bit of an odd duck.  Franco’s directorial choices, as one hears the words of Faulkner come out of these actors, makes this film lean in a direction that was not entirely favorable to me.  Still, as this film has the semblance of an experimental feature, among other things, there is a feature here that should provide some interest to those who seek it out.

Film: 

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As I Lay Dying presents the story of the death of Addie Bundren (Beth Grant) and her family’s quest to honor her wish to be buried in the nearby town of Jefferson.  James Franco, Jim Parrack, Ahna O’Reily, Logan Marshall-Green, and Brady Permenter star as Addie’s children, who are all involved in this quest.  Tim Blake Nelson plays Anse, Addie’s widower and father of all the children but one.  Danny McBride turns up as Vernon, a good friend of the family.  The main drive of this story is to movie Addie’s body to a specific place for burial, but it largely focuses on how the various members of the family deal with this event, both physically and spiritually.

I would be curious to see what a more adept director would have been able to accomplish with this adaptation.  It is not to slight James Franco, who has made some interesting choices as a director, but if you put top tier filmmakers like Terrance Malick or the Coen Brothers onto this material, chances are As I Lay Dying would have really delivered as a film.  For the film I did see, the most significant (and intrusive) choice was to rely heavily on the use of split screens to tell this story.  I can understand the choice in a sense, as the original novel has a complex structure, as it deals with multiple perspectives and the film is trying to communicate alternate views of the same scenes at the same time, but it never stops feeling like a gimmick that pulled me out of the film.

Beyond this aspect, the film largely relies on the actors doing their best old timey, rural American performances in order to communicate the time they are in, despite relaying information that may or may not lend itself to something deeper.  That “something deeper” will really depend on whether or not you are a fan of Faulkner’s prose.  I am not about to delve into the well that is the writings of William Faulkner, but this is a film that really wants to stay faithful to what the novel and Faulkner’s novels are going for, with regards to his take on Americana.

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There are certainly positives that come out of all this.  Despite the minimalistic production on display, the film looks very good.  The feel for the world is solid enough and nothing ever feels inauthentic, outside of the use of split screen.  I can also say that the actors are all doing solid work, with no one really feeling out of place (unless Kenny Powers has gone too far to sway you a certain way in regards to McBride).  The management of this story is also done pretty well, considering my gripes concerning the style of presentation.

Getting about a third of the way into the film, I hit the display button to see how long this feature would last, only to see it was about 110 minutes.  My reaction was, “ugh,” which is not really a glowing one.  It does not come down to being tired or not into dramas, neither of which are or were true for me at the time, I just found myself getting the idea of what As I Lay Dying was going for early on, regardless of whatever the narrative had in store for me (or more importantly for those freshly taking in this story).  Franco tried something very different for this film and I was not a big fan of the choice he made as a director.  That said, it has a level of ambition I can respect, so for that reason, the film may be worth checking out.

Video: 

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Rating a DVD’s video quality sometimes feels like a lost cause.  The film looks fine, which is not surprising.  It could of course feel more pronounced, were it to be displayed in high definition, but the DVD quality is about is good as it can be for a low budget film such as this.  The split screens tend to have a somewhat highlighted look to them, but really this disc looks just fine, given the format.

Audio: 

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Presented with an English 5.1 audio track, the quality is very good.  Proper mixing was done all around to really take in the dialogue, score, and heavy use of ambient sounds.  Again, this is a DVD, but sound tends to make a bigger impact in this format, so I can say that I was well enough immersed in what the audio track on this disc had to offer.

Extras: 

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Not a lot here.  A commentary would have been great, as we’d be allowed in the mind of Franco…but alas, only a featurette chopped into parts.

Features Include:

Behind the scenes with Cast & Crew – Labeled a bit vaguely, but appropriate enough, as it amounts to some EPK footage, mixed with interviews with a number of cast members, amounting to a little under 30 minutes of special features.

Summary: 

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What looks like more of an experimental art film, which just happens to have a very famous novel as its subject, As I Lay Dying has a level of ambition that is nice to see realized, but it ultimately does not amount to much.  The film features some fine performances and the story is an interesting one to see unfold on screen, but the presentation makes it a little too off-putting for me.  The DVD has decent technical specs, despite lacking more special features, making it a solid rental, were one to really be interested in the various talents of James Franco in front of and behind the lens.

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Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS3.
He also co-hosts a podcast,
Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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