1.5/4, 1990s, Clint Eastwood, Drama, Review

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

#40 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.

Clint Eastwood takes on yet another popular contemporary novel, and this is the least of the bunch. I have not read the source book written by John Berendt, but from what I’ve read the appeal of it was the lurid and somewhat fantastical reality that was this little corner of Savannah, Georgia, almost like a Southern Gothic Fellini adventure, along with the lurid details of a murder trial. Given the very difficult task of adapting the fairly hefty book was John Lee Hancock who wrote Eastwood’s A Perfect World, and it seems like Hancock fell into every trap one falls into when adapting a book to the screen while Eastwood never gave him a way out. Very little of this ends up compelling beyond some individual pockets, and it seems to lose itself in ancillary detail while ignoring what seems to be the actual story.

John Kelso (John Cusack) is a reporter who shows up to Savannah, Georgia to write a five-hundred-word piece about the annual Christmas party held by Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). Kelso gets his taste of the small southern city by meeting Kelso’s partner and lawyer Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson), a disbarred lawyer turned jazz pianist Joe Odom (Paul Hipp), and a good-looking young woman who immediately attaches herself to Kelso, Mandy (Alison Eastwood). It’s a fun diversion of a couple of days, emceed by Williams himself most of the time, made complicated when Williams shoots and kills Billy Hanson (Jude Law), a young man with whom the two obviously have some kind of close relationship. Kelso decides to stick around a little while longer, no longer wanting to write an article but a book on what’s going on, made all the more urgent in his mind when the district attorney, Finley (Bob Gunton), decides to pursue a grand jury investigation in the hopes of pursuing a trial, which succeeds.

Kelso decides to take up his own investigation of the people and events surrounding Williams, and this is where I suspect the real meat of the book was. The denizens of Savannah have this surface level amount of interesting as “characters” due to certain unique characteristics, like Luther Driggers (Geoffrey Lewis), a chemist who ties horseflies to himself, letting them buzz around him by their strings, who also carries around a bottle of poison he says he’ll dump in the water supply one day if he gets mad enough. That’s an interesting character (apparently heavily heightened from the real man), and I can imagine an extended description of him based on interviews being really interesting…in written form. In film form, he feels like a background extra in La Dolce Vita given too much screen time. There’s no real character here, just character tics.

The real focus of this section is The Lady Chablis (playing himself), a transvestite who performs as an emcee in a dumpy little roadshow style bordello on the edge of town. He was Billy Hanson’s roommate for a time, and Chablis becomes the focus of Kelso’s efforts to dig into Hanson’s past. The problem is that Chablis doesn’t actually know very much, and yet the movie spends at least a third of its running time chasing Chablis around and watching him be extravagantly flamboyant around town. It culminates with Kelso being invited to an African American cotillion that Chablis crashes. It’s an extended scene that does surprisingly little narratively. While Chablis’ antics are somewhat entertaining in a safely-transgressive sort of way, we spend so much time with him that the payoff in terms of contributions to the Jim Williams case (remember that?) just doesn’t feel justified.

And that really points to where the problem was in this adaptation. Using the real Lady Chablis was a good idea because he’s authentically himself, giving the film a certain documentary aspect that was the book’s appeal, but we don’t really get a whole cast of characters and the actual story, the drive of which becomes more important in a two-and-a-half hour long film than a four hundred page book, gets lost. Instead of feeling like we’re getting lost in a city amidst a cavalcade of characters with a looming threat of the law coming down on a man we like, it feels like we’re getting lost with one person without any real sense of the larger threat.

The other major problem I have is the mystery itself. Part of this is because it’s ignored for so long, but I never really had much interest in it at all. The mystery is whether Williams killed Hanson in self-defense or not, and I just never found the question involving these characters all that interesting. Spacey’s take on Williams feels artificially charming, not the sort of thing I got emotionally invested in, so I never really saw Kelso’s interest in Williams’ story as anything other than ambition and an attempt to capitalize on a situation that fell into his lap. His quest to help prove Williams’ innocence gets so sidetracked for so long that there’s no real emotional investment even tried to get built around it either. So, when the trial starts and we start getting our requisite amazing revelations (Chablis’ revelation? Obvious drug user Hanson was a drug user) the revelations aren’t that amazing and they’re not that surprising.

Essentially, the first half or so is this lethargic look at thinly written characters with extreme outward characteristics, and the second half is a trial that doesn’t excite. It’s largely a dull affair.

However, that’s not to say that it’s worthless. Eastwood effectively films everything, giving it a clean, professional quality that’s at least easy on the eyes. The acting is fine, though far from the best in an Eastwood film. Cusack works as Kelso. Spacey is pretty good as Williams with the lack of connection more of a scripting problem. Alison Eastwood is a pretty face. Lady Chablis is quite a character and good for some fun. Jude Law, in his very small role, leaves a mark. It’s really the supporting cast that gives a lot of life to the place with people like Paul Hipp, Jack Thompson, and Bob Gunton giving life to the edges of the film.

It doesn’t work. It’s a real misfire from Eastwood which would have felt more at home with his uneven 80s output rather than his much more solid 90s output. It’s a misguided effort to translate an inherently uncinematic source material to film.

Rating: 1.5/4

3 thoughts on “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”

  1. I like the technical aspects but I kinda hate all the characters in it. It gets even more irritating once we all learned more about Kevin Spacey’s kinks and private life. Makes the movie unbearable to me to rewatch (I bailed). But yeah, gay/bisexual hustler gets killed by the guy fucking him and everyone has the sads. Even though the hustler wasn’t a very good person either. And I’m very much past being able to enjoy trannies in movies.

    There are some good performances, the accent is….interesting and doesn’t line up with the real people I met in Savannah a few years back. The book/movie also doesn’t deal with how freaking haunted that city is, surprisingly. A supernatural angle would have given it more interest.

    But this is also a good example of not making movies based too closely on real events. Make a movie, tell a good story. Or make an investigative documentary. Don’t go half way with either.

    Bleh and meh.

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    1. Eastwood couldn’t make a badly made film. He could make well made bad films, though, and this really feels like that. Caught between ideas and mediums, it simply doesn’t gel.

      There were at least two points where the Academy seemed to just give up on Eastwood, and this is the first.

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