As I Lay Dying

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
As I Lay Dying Movie Poster Image
Franco's dark, strange, but appealing Faulkner adaptation.
  • R
  • 2013
  • 110 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages
The story's main concern is the interaction between family members surrounding the death and burial of mother and wife Addie. Many of them have their own opinions of how things should go, and some of them try to act on these opinions, while others disagree. The ending is ambiguous as to just how much the family will be able to stick together after their trials and tribulations.
Positive Role Models & Representations
Characters are not the strong suit here. These folks are seen at a bad time of life when they are all severely tested, and none of them are on their best behavior. However, offscreen, James Franco might be admired for his prodigious work ethic. Aside from his prolific acting career, he has already directed several features and shorts, written screenplays, published books, and even teaches courses in filmmaking.
A character breaks his leg, and a doctor tries to set the bone while he screams in pain. Later, the leg is shown to be gangrenous and a doctor begins to saw it off. Some blood is shown. The matriarch of the family dies, although she continues to "narrate" the story. The family escapes from a barn fire; one man tries to rescue the coffin and catches on fire himself. A character is arrested, and two men jump on him and wrestle him into submission. Also, the family argues a great deal. In a disturbing scene, a doctor has intercourse with a woman in "payment" for an abortion; we see some rough thrusting, but no nudity.
A man is shown full-frontally naked for just a second or two (not James Franco). A woman is seen having sex in the tall grass, with nothing sensitive shown.
Fairly infrequent language includes "bastard," "hell," "son of a bitch," "damn." Characters also reference God, but in a reverent way.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
A character is given whisky to drink as a painkiller before a doctor sets his broken leg. The doctor also takes a swig.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that As I Lay Dying is an adaptation of William Faulkner's great 1930 novel, written, directed by, and starring James Franco. It contains some disturbing violence, notably a broken leg that turns gangrenous and must be sawed off (a little blood is shown). And of course, death is at the center of the story. There's also a disturbing scene in which an abortion doctor has sex with a patient as "payment" for her services. A fully naked man is shown for a second or two, and there's another, gentler sex scene. Language is light, and includes "son of a bitch." There's one scene of drinking, but mainly as a painkiller during the broken leg sequence. High school students struggling with the book may not find much help here, but older, hardcore Faulkner fans may appreciate it.

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What's the story?

It's 1930 in Mississippi, and Addie Bundren (Beth Grant) is dying. She lies in bed listening to her son Cash (Jim Parrack) building her coffin. The rest of her family, her husband Anse (Tim Blake Nelson) and her children Darl (James Franco), Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green), Dewey Dell (Ahna O'Reilly), and Vardaman (Brady Permenter), react to her death in different ways. The atmosphere grows darker when the family bands together to transport Addie's coffin back to her hometown for burial. They must deal with flooded rivers, a broken leg, and a barn fire. Can they withstand these tests and stick together?

Is it any good?

AS I LAY DYING takes more risks than most movies. It has been decades since anyone attempted to adapt a William Faulkner novel for the big screen, and certainly As I Lay Dying  -- a novel with 15 different narrators -- was a difficult choice for actor/writer/director and all-around Renaissance man James Franco. Perhaps the easiest thing would have been to make one of those glossy, reverent, literary movies that never sprang to life. What Franco came up with instead is messy, bizarre, muted, and confusing, but it's also heartfelt and personal.
Franco is not precious about the period details. The costumes look like actual clothing, and the sets feel like real, lived-in places. The Mississippi accents are thick and unruly; it's very difficult to understand much of what Tim Blake Nelson -- who mumbles through a mouthful of rotten teeth -- says. Indeed, it's difficult to tune into any individual character, but the overall mood and the sense of family connection are quite strong.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the movie's violence. How do the darker and more disturbing moments help to underline or illustrate the family's hardship? Could the movie have been made without them?
  • How does this movie compare to the book? How does it compare to other literary adaptations you may have seen? Does the movie make you want to read the book, if you haven't already?

  • How does this movie compare with James Franco's other films? What could he be trying to say by choosing to make a movie from this particular book?

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