An outsider, of “carnival folk” in a rustic, small town in the backwoods of Tennessee, Lester Ballard lives alone, fighting for his survival. In Child of God, Scott Haze depicts the tragic adult life of Ballard, a deranged and complicated character originally from Cormac McCarthy’s novel.
At the age of nine, his father commits suicide and his mother runs away. The movie begins with the town auctioning off his land without his permission, essentially arbitrarily seizing it. Ballard is chronically alone throughout his life. It’s reasonable to understand that Ballard isn’t going to manifest “normal” behaviors. In fact, he demonstrates schizophrenic tendencies, yet he is also wildly articulate and extremely crafty. He performs countless acts of survival—he even catches a pigeon with his bare hands. Les Stroud couldn’t think on his feet as swiftly as Ballard.
And yet society, particularly the sheriff (played by Tim Blake Nelson), continue to hold power over him. Sheriff Fate treats Ballard like an animal, a being that is less than society. He beats him up and demeans him like child. Following Fate’s example, all of the townspeople treat Ballard like an inferior being, a creature without the same inherent rights as a human. Throughout the movie, Lester Ballard continuously makes attempts to demonstrate his human status, even if he has to commit murder and perform acts of necrophilia to do it. Ballard’s circumstances have deprived him of a basic human need: love. And he is willing to do anything, regardless of the law, to find affection from someone—or something—to assert that he is more than an animal.
Lester Ballard is much like Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein. Both are misunderstood and animalistic. Because they are not like the perfect image of a human that society expects, each is cast aside and pushed away. When Lester interacts with a battered woman in the woods, he has a hard time comprehending the woman’s torn appearance and demeanor and becomes frustrated. The woman is quick to judge and believes Lester will attack her. Ballard, like Shelley’s creature, is often misunderstood. Each desires human contact and connection. Who can blame these characters for just wanting to receive affection from someone?
Despite the fact that Lester commits heinous crimes, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him and identify with him. He finds couples in parked cars and uses his rifle to collect “friends.” It’s sad how he cannot live beside the living and so finds comfort in the deceased.
Can we blame a person who is consistently isolated from society for wanting to take actions to find love? Lester Ballard wants to give love too and we see that in the way he treats the corpse of a deceased girl he brings home to his wooded cabin. He buys her new clothes and prepares for a “date.”
As the director walks his audience through Ballard’s struggles in his day-to-day life, the movie’s conclusion leaves us feeling as though Ballard is a benevolent murderer not a mass murderer. I don’t see a person who is malicious and a calculating; I see a misunderstood man who is a product of his circumstances.
“We are all humans. People who read the novel have to take on a human connection,” actor Scott Haze said during a discussion at the Virginia Film Festival.
Haze took impressive measures to prepare for the role. He traveled to West Virginia where Child of God was filmed to live in three months of isolation. Haze recounts how in his time of seclusion he would end up talking to himself and how he “made friends” with inanimate objects. Haze even went as far as to live in a cave, a place Lester goes to gather friends. Haze also credited James Franco as a director who understands him: “If James [Franco] wasn’t directing, then any other director [would] just think I was crazy.”
Haze embraced the role of Lester as a chance to tell a story. I appreciated his passion to commit to telling the story behind the outsider. Ballard’s story reminds me of looking in on the story behind a bullied high-schooler, one who ultimately snaps and shoots up the school as a comeback to his foes. In fact, I kept waiting for Ballard to just walk into the middle of the town and enact a massacre to the likes of the shooting at Virginia Tech or Columbine,
But Haze did not see his role as simply the role of a serial killer. He portrayed a deeply disturbed man who truly yearned for acceptance and appreciation.It’s pleasant to see an actor who utilizes method-acting to produce such a riveting performance. I believed in Lester’s character; my heart went out to him. Haze aggressively commits to the role. He pushes boundaries. In multiple scenes, he has snot running down his nose.
But Haze did not answer (in his performance or Q&A) an imperative question: does Lester Ballard realize his actions are wrong or immoral? Can we assume that his mental illness clouds his judgment and conduct? A court of law pardons the mentally disabled, so should we pardon Lester Ballard for his actions?
Perhaps this question remains unanswered because Child of God is ultimately not a movie about mental illness. Instead it is a movie that demonstrates the consequences of society pushing a person aside.
From Matthews N.C., Courtney Schultz is a Campbell University senior, studying journalism and political science. She is the editor in chief of The Campbell Times, the student newspaper at Campbell.