This Distracted Globe random header image

Skullduggery in Savannah

May 13th, 2010 · 4 Comments

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997 poster Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil DVD

Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by John Lee Hancock, based on the book by John Berendt
Produced by Clint Eastwood, Arnold Stiefel
155 minutes

The film adaptation of John Berendt’s Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil — known in Savannah with equal exasperation and pride as “The Book” — may be a tone deaf murder mystery/comedy that never comes together despite a ponderous two and a half hour running time. It may also be a faithful adaptation of a book less enamored with John Grisham style plotting and more devoted to the dissonant rhythms of a town, chock full of eccentrics and historical anecdotes that fascinate despite never really coming together in 400 pages of paperback. What to make of this luxuriously made film by Clint Eastwood is that it’s about the murder trial of an antiques dealer, a fairly flat made-for-TV movie that could have easily taken place in Portland, Maine or Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil transposes scenes straight from the book without managing to capture anything like the feeling of reading the book. It’s a mystery that fails to feel mysterious. The setting is oddly flat, as if Eastwood was more comfortable shooting west of the Continental Divide than in the Deep South. His sensibilities seem to drift toward a feature length Perry Mason episode attempting to press into sheet metal what is strange and exotic in the book. Maybe Alan J. Pakula would have brought something atmospheric and kinky to the film, maybe no director would have. Kevin Spacey brings terrific panache to his performance, but John Cusack is given little to nothing to do as the writer unraveling a ho-hum murder.

31 Days of Eastwood

Author John Kelso (John Cusack) arrives in Savannah, Georgia on behalf of Town & Country Magazine to write an article on the annual Christmas party of antiques dealer Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), whose civic accomplishments and invitation only social affairs are renowned in the Coastal Empire. Word of Kelso’s assignment gets around, particularly to singer Mandy Nicholls (Alison Eastwood) who lures the author to a party hosted by musician and scalawag Joe Odom (Paul Hipp). Kelso discovers that Williams asked Town & Country for him specifically based on a poorly received novel Kelso wrote, but the author is exposed to a different side of the nouveau riche renovator when the night of the party, Williams shoots his volatile young lover Billy Hanson (Jude Law) to death in self defense.

Exclaiming to his agent that Savannah is like “Gone With the Wind on mescaline”, Kelso ditches his magazine piece to write a book on the Jim Williams trial. Among the characters with a place in the mystery are transvestite entertainer The Lady Chablis (as herself) who insists on accompanying Kelso to a cotillion ball, industrial chemist Luther Driggers (Geoffrey Lewis) who serves as jury foreman despite his veiled threats to poison the city’s water supply, armed and daffy society dame Serena Dawes (Dorothy Loudon) and a “root doctor” named Minerva (Irma P. Hall) who Williams reaches out to for legal assistance along with his obtuse attorney (Jack Thompson). Minerva believes that Billy’s restless spirit must be appeased for Williams to have peace and she sees through the empty space in Kelso’s soul as well.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997 John Cusack Kevin Spacey

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997 Kevin Spacey

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997 Alison Eastwood John Cusasck

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997 Kevin Spacey John Cusack Jude Law

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997 John Cusack Kevin Spacey Richard Herd

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997 The Lady Chablis

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997 Kevin Spacey

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997 John Cusack Alison Eastwood The Lady Chablis

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 29 users: 52% for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: 57 for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

What do you say?

Tags: Based on book · Forensic evidence · Interrogation · Murder mystery · No opening credits · Small town · Supernatural

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 J.D. // May 13, 2010 at 7:35 am

    I have to respectfully disagree with you. I really felt that this film was absolutely dripping with atmosphere and that Eastwood and his D.P. did a fantastic job conveying a sense of place. It doesn’t feel or look like anywhere else and Eastwood goes to great lengths to give you a sense of the local color and what life is like there. It is actually an interesting flipside to the way Robert Altman portrays Savannah in his film THE GINGERBREAD MAN, which couldn’t be any more different.

    As for the mystery that isn’t mysterious, yeah, this is true but it doesn’t really bother me all that much. Eastwood’s film seems more to be a character study with the murder mystery in the background. Spacey’s performance is so much fun to watch and reminds me of a time when he seemed to actually care about acting – something that seems largely absent in his recent performances. I will agree that Cusack is a little bland – the problem of being the audience surrogate – he basically reacts to all of these much more colorful characters, which is fine because they are so distinctive and interesting to watch. As a result, Cusack tends to fade into the background which I actually didn’t mind so much.

    I dunno. I’m not a fan of the book that this film is based on but I do enjoy this film a lot. It certainly isn’t Eastwood’s finest film but it does have its own unique feel and look about it that I enjoy.

  • 2 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // May 14, 2010 at 12:22 am

    Kevin Spacey rocks! At least, he did in this movie (and some others). This movie reminds me of TV shows that start out with a bang because they are so quirky, but then they get so bogged down in their own quirkiness that they are no longer able to tell an interesting or cohesive story. I thought the film had some atmosphere and some quirky characters, but I remember almost nothing about the story. So apparently whatever it was trying to achieve, it failed miserably where I’m concerned.

  • 3 Kristie // May 14, 2010 at 2:41 am

    Joe, I forgive you for bashing Clint Eastwood and John Cusack. It pains me to write this, but you are right.
    Looking forward to your next article!

  • 4 Joe Valdez // May 14, 2010 at 10:45 am

    J.D.: Thanks for reminding me about The Gingerbread Man, which came out at exactly the same time but I liked a little more. These types of movies are like gumbo, and whether you think one has too much quirkiness or not enough spookiness, or a murder mystery that’s dry, no two diners are going to agree. I do agree with you about Kevin Spacey here and wonder what happened to him. Thanks for commenting!

    Monica: I’m sure the author of this book broke into laughter after he sold the film rights to Warner Bros. One conceit I think works is when the big city writer played by Cusack has to indulge a transvestite entertainer in Savannah to get information for his book. That’s pretty original and Chablis is a hoot playing herself. All the stuff about Williams and his trial and the other characters about town is simply not compelling to watch play out on film. Thanks for commenting!

    Kristie: I’ll try to show more respect in the future. If I’m “bashing” anything it is the decision to adapt this material into a movie. I don’t know if anybody could have gotten this book on the screen and maybe a documentary would have been the way to go. You can’t direct 32 features and have all of them turn out perfectly though. Thanks for chiming in!

Leave a Comment