Occasionally, one comes across a film that is simply so quirky and its characters so eccentric, the audience is unable to suspend its disbelief and fully embrace the fiction of the film’s universe. I am unable to enjoy Napoleon Dynamite because despite my love of quirky, eccentric films, it crosses that invisible line between unique and enters the world of pretentiously self-aware. I have a similar problem with the overly idiosyncratic dialogue of Juno which tries to come off as cute and fresh but instead comes off as forced and insincere. If one were to watch Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of John Berendt’s true crime novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and not know it were a true story, they might be forgiven for thinking this film was simply trying too hard to come off as weird and eccentric with its seeming overflow of strange characters inhabiting an almost mystical world. Yet, the reality that this is a true story (mostly since several details from the novel were changed) adds an authentic oddity to this film that allows it to be a preservation of an especially strange chapter of our American story. While it is far from Clint Eastwood’s best work and the addition of a romantic subplot not present in the novel did nothing to help the film, this was still an incredibly intriguing film which keeps its hooks in you for its entire 2 and half hour length.
Loosely based around actual events in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1980’s, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil recounts the sprawling saga of a complex and scandalous murder trial of one of the town’s most celebrated figures as well as providing an extraordinarily strange portrait of high society in the deep south. John Kelso (John Cusack) is a journalist from the North who has been sent to Savannah to write a magazine piece on a Christmas party being thrown by noted antiques collector and closeted homosexual Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). After witnessing a fight between Jim and Jim’s live-in lover Billy Hanson (Jude Law), John is woken in the middle of night to the sound of police cars and discovers that Jim shot Billy to death. Jim claims it was self-defense but some unconvincing evidence sways the police to charge Jim with murder, and John finds himself drawn into the murder trial of Jim, the experiences from which he is hoping to use to write a book. Along the way, John finds himself interviewing every aspect of Savannah society, from old, past their primes southern Belles to the drag queen, Lady Chablis (playing herself), to the height of debutante society to a voodoo witch doctor all to find out the truth behind this vexing mystery.
As the film runs for over two and a half hours, you’d expect that an attention to detail would be key and you would be right. Clint Eastwood and his camera (as well as the script itself) revel in the delight of capturing every minute detail of this microcosm of Southern society. Using the Northern John Kelso as the audience stand-in, we are dropped in a world that is practically alien in its strangeness. Everyone, including old women, carry loaded guns and are able to laugh and tell charming anecdotes about their dead husbands’ suicides. No one even suspects that the incredibly masculine looking Lady Chablis was a drag queen because homosexuality is just ignored in these circles (even though they all “knew” that Jim was gay). A man walks a non-existent dog on a leash every day because it was a job he was paid to do a long time ago and no one ever took him off the books when the dog died. A man walks around with flies tethered to his body on strings and carries around poison that he consistently threatens to use on the town, but no one really bats an eye. The details never stop even after the film is over, and it’s a delight to lose yourself in this strange antebellum world.
Outside of his early role in Say Anything, I’ve never considered John Cusack a top-shelf actor, and nothing about this performance does anything to change my mind. It wasn’t bad. It’s just the most boring role in the film and he didn’t do anything to freshen the part up. Kevin Spacey bears what can only be called a frightening physical resemblance to the real-life Jim Williams, and while this isn’t a The Usual Suspects or American Beauty caliber performance, he definitely plays the restrained southern genteel aristocracy quite well. If Lady Chablis weren’t playing herself, I would have said that she had stole the entire film. Out of a cast full of memorable characters and distinct personalities, she tops the list and then some. She is perhaps the most open and honest person in the entire film, and since she is herself in this role, the authenticity of her performance is staggering. She also adds the film some darkly comic moments whenever things begin to get too serious with the trial and John’s investigations. Needless to say, she was a star in a cast with established stars.
Even at two and a half hours, this film moved at the perfect pace as fans of other true crime novels like Helter Skelter or the movie Zodiac will love getting lost in the investigation and trial that John Berendt documented for his book (although in the book, there were four trials as compared to the single trial in the film). My only complaint about the film was the unnecessary love story involving John Kelso and one of the local women who was played by director Clint Eastwood’s daughter, Alison. I would never accuse Clint Eastwood of nepotism but I can’t think of any other reason for why that part of the movie is in the film. Once again, Alison Eastwood did fine in her role, but it didn’t contribute anything productive to the film. For fans of true crime books and movies as well as for those who love scathing deconstructions of the so called perfect societies as done in Blue Velvet and here, this is a must watch.
Final Score: B+