Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

midnight-in-the-gardenOver the past decade or so — dating back to Pale Rider and Bird — Clint Eastwood has developed a moody and meditative style that can be immensely satisfying. Eastwood trusts us to be adults, to sit still and relax into a narrative. Yet his deliberate style only works when he gives us ambiguities and complexities to savor, as in Unforgiven. A slow pulp movie like Eastwood’s Absolute Power merely seems slow, giving us too much time to pick at the plot threads.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is certainly not pulp, and it might be more disreputable fun if it were pulp. The movie is based on John Berendt’s bestseller, which reads like a shot; if Berendt had written his book the way Eastwood has directed the film, nobody would’ve gotten past the first chapter. A flamboyant director like Kenneth Branagh might have captured the juicy vitality of the book. Eastwood dries everything out, telling the basic story at a snail’s pace.

Berendt narrated his book as a detached outsider and observer drawn into the local color of Savannah, Georgia. Eastwood and scripter John Lee Hancock (who previously collaborated on A Perfect World) replace Berendt with the fictional John Kelso (John Cusack), a writer doing a story for Town and Country about the legendary Christmas party thrown by local antiques dealer Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). The Kelso character has been given a more active role than Berendt had in the book, but Cusack never quite registers; he seems to be floating around the margins of the movie.

Spacey, the best reason to see Midnight, gives his usual suave, effortless performance as the mysterious Williams. Williams, it seems, is having an affair with a mercurial young stud named Billy Hanson (Jude Law, who makes a vivid impression in his few scenes). One night, a drunk and hot-headed Billy visits Williams in his study; they have an argument that leaves Billy shot to death on Williams’ Persian rug.

Was it self-defense or outright murder? That was the mystery that held Berendt’s local-color anecdotes together. The film compresses Williams’ four trials into one and retains a few of the book’s odd characters, including a guy who ties flies to his clothes (Geoffrey Lewis), an elderly voodoo woman (Irma P. Hall), and the flashy drag queen Lady Chablis, who plays herself — a little of her goes a very long way. Boy, get a load of all these quirky people! The movie is sometimes like a Letterman sketch about weirdos stretched out over two and a half hours. Eastwood had more success with a group of misfits in his Bronco Billy, a fine movie that suggested he could adapt Berendt’s difficult-to-adapt book.

Why couldn’t he, then? Maybe nobody could have; some material simply works better on the page than on the screen. Eastwood gets points for trying, but Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil lacks dramatic power and focus; it’s one long ramble surrounding a routine courtroom drama, meandering and, finally, boring. It asks whether we can really know the truth — a question asked and answered brilliantly in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, a far better film and, God knows, far shorter.

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