“It’s not an easy book to read; not an easy film to make.” -Lee Caplin, producer
Based on William Faulkner’s novel of the same title, the film tells the story of the Compson family, Some would argue that the James Franco directed film is not easy to watch. But as Franco has done with other classic pieces of southern literature (As I Lay Dying and Child of God for example) he stays faithful to the novel. Franco’s storytelling follows the model of the deconstructed, non-linear, stream-of-consciousness style that seems to ooze from Faulkner’s writing.
Franco has stated that Faulkner pushes him as a filmmaker. Franco would also say that he approached the film and the character of Benjy by going to the book.
The novel tells the story in four movements, being told by four different characters. Much like the four gospels in the New Testament, they tell the same story from their unique perspective. The film, however, is told in only three movements or gospels – Benjy, Quentin, and Jason. The fourth, from the novel, is told from the perspective of Dilsey (in the film played by Loretta Devine), the African-American servant. The first three movements are like the Synoptic gospels, similar yet different, while Dilsey’s narrative is like John’s, adding more theology and interpretation to the events in the other three.
Each of the narratives, when complied together, tell the complicated story of the Compson family. The Compsons are former aristocrats in Jackson, Mississippi. Their family wealth, along with their reputation, are crashing. Everyone in the family responds to this change in a different way.
While the film is told in three chapters, one for each of the three brothers’ narratives, the center of the film is the brothers’ sister, Caddy (Ahna O’Reilly). Each of them has some fascination with her, that leaves the viewer wondering, especially in the case of Quentin, if it is healthy. Caddy is a rebel and free-spirit. Her story is not told by herself, but through the looming, splintered memories of her brothers.
The first narrative is told by Benjy (James Franco), the 33-year-old man with some form of cognitive disability.Most of Benjy’s dialogue is made up of grunts and groans; shouts and whispers. Caddy, from a young age, had been a mother-figure to Benjy. She talked to him like he was no different from the rest of them. She listened to him, asking him questions, though she knew he could not answer, and was his voice. To Benjy, Caddy is a guardian angel, protecting him from the dangers he is uncertain about.
When Caddy’s secret comes out that her child was not fathered by her husband, she is forced to leave home. Benjy does not understand her absence. The golfers on the family property that was sold and turned into a golf course yelling “caddy!” doesn’t help. Benjy tries to go across the fence looking for Caddy. Without Caddy, Benjy has no voice.
The second part is told from the perspective of Quentin (Jacob Loeb). Quentin struggles with a lot things. Mainly his own sexuality. Caddy is very free and expressive of her sexuality, making Quentin uncomfortable. The mother always seems to be feeling bad, leaving Caddy as the woman in the brothers’ life. Socially Quentin knows how a Southern gentleman and a Southern belle are to act. But, the demise of the Compson family could very symbolize the demise of the South. Things are changing, and Caddy represents all this change. To Quentin, Caddy is a Grecian love-tradegy, never quite loving him the way he loves her. Quentin spends most of his life distraught by his feelings for his sister. While away at college, he comes upon mute Italian girl, whom he walks around town calling his “little sister.” Every woman Quentin meets will always be compared to Caddy.
Quentin, misdirects his love for his sister, by telling their father, played by Tim Blake Nelson, that Caddy’s child was the result of insect between him and his sister. Truth is, the father is the rebel Dalton Ames, whom Quentin attempted to stand up to and fight. He is so overwhelmed that his sister is dishonored because her daughter is not her husband’s, something inside Quentin snaps. He is unable to deal, and it leads him to suicide.
The third narrative is from the eldest brother Jason (Scott Haze). Jason’s story is told more in the present than the other two. As the eldest, Jason has the expectations on himself that he is to be successful, and carry out the family name. But that name is not what it used to be. To Jason, Caddy is a woman who has fallen from glory, whose sins cost him a career. Caddy’s husband, Herbert, offered Jason a job at the bank. When Herbert finds out that the baby is not his, he removes the job offer off the table. And even though Jason is smart enough to know that what’s best for Caddy is that she not marry Herbert, he cannot see past the anger it caused him. And he olds the grudge for twenty plus years.
His days are spent fighting with Dilsey regarding how to raise Caddy’s daughter, Quentin (named after Caddy’s dead brother). Jason takes all of the anger he has for his sister out on his niece. He made sure Caddy did not get much after their father passed away, not that there was much to get. And he pocketed the money that Caddy sent to her daughter for himself. Whenever Miss Quentin would start to show signs of following in her mother’s footsteps, Jason would do everything he could to put an end to it. He sees Caddy in Miss Quentin.
At times Caddy appears to be a Tennessee Williams-like Southern belle. In the novel, she is somewhat of a mythic figure. Though she is promiscuous, she is the one who shows love unconditionally. She is the only one in the family who shows Benjy respect and love, and does not see him as a burden.
Jason never experienced that unconditional love. And when there were opportunities of reconciliation, Jason’s anger prevented it from happening. Which perhaps we begin to see a change as the film comes to a close. Benjy is accused of sexually violating a little girl. He went through the gate following a little blond-headed girl whom he thought was Caddy. Benji is taken away. Jason runs out of the house, yelling unscripted lines, “Bring back my brother!”
Franco has attempted to film what most consider unfilmable: a William Faulkner novel. Yet, for all the grief he has received from critics, the film is not poorly made. It captures the nature of Faulkner. Though not covering everything in the novel, it is faithful to it.