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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a gorgeous and atmospheric movie. Director Clint Eastwood and cinematographer Jack Green have created an intoxicating mixture of Southern gentility and burgeoning decadence. As the camera prowls around the town square of Savannah, Georgia (and in this movie Savannah feels like a town of 5,000 instead of it's actual 150,000+), we see Spanish moss and verdant, well-manicured lawns. Huge, gnarled trees lean far over the park walkways, creating a canopy of leaves. We see wide palm fronds and magnolia trees, wrought iron gates, and old-world Spanish architecture, complete with cracked plaster and exposed brick walls. Eastwood creates a love letter to Savannah, Georgia--and I'm sure a whole new crowd of Savannah lovers will be created to add to the tens of thousands of tourists currently flocking to Savannah after reading John Berendt's best-selling book, upon which the movie is based.

The movie is filled with strange, quirky characters--such as the man who walks an invisible dog and the man who attaches horseflies to strings and then ties them to his clothes. The quirky characters and intoxicating atmosphere almost completely overtake the movie, almost . . . almost. I wish they had. Unfortunately, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is also a courtroom drama and a murder mystery. And the filmmakers never reconcile how to tell a big, monster-sized courtroom drama while also piling on the atmosphere. The movie ends up working best in individual scenes, but the scenes never really pull together into a satisfying whole.

The movie introduces us to John Kelso (John Cusack--in the best performance of his career), a freelance writer hired by Town and Country magazine to write a 500-word article about the lavish Christmas party of Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), who owns a magnificent home complete with a pipe organ and elegant curving staircases. Kelso becomes our eyes as he is introduced to life in Savannah by a host of characters. Jack Thompson plays the protective, bulldog-like lawyer of Jim Williams. Alison Eastwood (Clint's daughter) plays a free-spirited young woman who introduces herself to Kelso by waking him in the middle of the night in order to borrow some ice. Irma P. Hall plays a voodoo priestess who plies her trade from a local cemetery. Jude Law plays a dangerous young hunk named Billy Hanson who works for Jim Williams. And Lady Chablis is . . . well, you'll have to experience her for yourself.

Shortly after the party, Jim Williams shoots Billy Hanson. He claims it was self-defense, that Billy was brandishing a gun of his own, but the police are immediately skeptical. Before long, the police arrest Jim and charge him with murder. Meanwhile, John Kelso senses a full-blown novel developing before his eyes, and he begins interviewing people in Savannah, trying to learn more about both Jim Williams and Billy Hanson and the nature of their relationship.

Part of the problem with the movie is how easily it reduces to the above plot description. Normally, Eastwood is a first-class storyteller. However, in Midnight, the plot (while compelling in its own right) is interrupted periodically by scenes that have no bearing on the story at hand. In one instance, a jury foreman passes the jury's verdict to the court bailiff and a small bottle falls from the juror's pocket. At this crucial point in the story, the camera follows the bottle as it rolls on the floor, as the judge orders for it to be brought to him, as he looks at it and then orders it returned to the juror. What does it all add up to? Nothing. That's part of the problem with the movie. The filmmakers keep giving us the same bits of atmosphere and the same quirky bits of characterization over and over. Long after we know Lady Chablis is a free-spirited rapscallion, the filmmakers continue giving us more scenes with her. And most disappointingly, Lady Chablis' role in the movie could be excised without affecting the plot itself one iota.

The problem is the filmmakers have only gone halfway. With an old-fashioned storyteller like Clint Eastwood at the helm, they're still holding onto notions of conventional storytelling. For all the emphasis on atmosphere and quirky characters, the filmmakers are still hanging onto notions of traditional Hollywood plotting. At the heart of the movie is a big, cumbersome courtroom drama and a murder mystery. We get the big courtroom scenes, with Jack Thompson addressing the jury and trying to convince them that his client is innocent. We get Jim William's mother cringing as she learns more about her son's sexuality. We get John Cusack tracking down clues and finding new witnesses. We get flashbacks to the crime scene. In the process, the courtroom drama/mystery completely overpowers the atmosphere--as it should if this were a conventionally-plotted movie--but this isn't a conventional, plot-heavy Hollywood production, as can be seen in the number of times it diverges from the story at hand for trips to fraternity dance parties and local nightclubs. But the filmmakers remain only semi-committed to developing the atmosphere. The movie needed to be lazy and ornate and elaborate and flamboyant--like life in Savannah--but it never really succeeds because it just doesn't have enough time to tell its story. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil craves the meandering and indulgent structure of a television mini-series, where the "plot" can become just a thin thread that gently holds all the pieces together. But in this movie, the plot becomes too prominent, which has the effect of actually making the quirky characters and situations irritating, for they just get in the way of the courtroom drama.

I can't help but feel that there is good movie somewhere in all the footage. With some judicious editing, this movie could be whittled down to a fraction of its current size. Or, it could be blown up into a mini-series (maybe even a full-blown series, such as Twin Peaks), complete with scores of subplots and a lazy meandering approach (which admittedly would much better fit the material). I feel like the filmmakers wanted the latter, but they ended up botching the subplots as they rushed through them. This movie is both too long and too short at the same time.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]

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