February 12, 2011

Queer Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: John Lee Hancock based upon the novel by John Berendt
Cast: John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Jack Thompson, Irma P. Hall, Lady Chablis, Jude Law, Alison Eastwood, Paul Hipp, Geoffrey Lewis

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a slow moving character study, that is if we consider the place of Savannah, Georgia to be a character in of itself. The movie is based upon the book of the same title by John Berendt, which tells the story of his experiences in the town during a high profile murder investigation.

Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey) is a wealthy and closeted gay man, whose annual high profile Christmas party is being covered by John Kelso (John Cusack) for a magazine article that Kelso was commissioned to write. Shortly before Kelso was planning to fly back to New York, a shocking event in the form of Williams shooting and killing his young lover Billy Hanson (Jude Law) - makes Kelso decide to stay and investigate these events in the hopes of writing a book. Williams claims that he acted in self defense, but that does not prevent a murder trial from commencing where Williams sexual orientation could sway a jury towards rendering a guilty verdict.

While John Kelso aids Williams defense teams, he meets and gets to know Savannah's colorful cast of characters. There's Lady Chablis (played by herself) a flamboyant female transgendered performer, Minerva (Irma P. Hall) a mysterious Voodoo practitioner, Joe Odom (Paul Hipp) a high class squatter, and Luther Driggers (Geoffrey Lewis) a man who keeps flies as pets and carries a bottle that he claims contains enough poison to kill everyone in Savannah. Kelso also meets and woos Mandy Nicholls (Alison Eastwood) a character not found in the novel.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil moves slowly, arguably too slowly at times. Eastwood directs with a steady hand, establishing a moody atmosphere and capably depicts the colorful cast of characters. The film's stumbling block comes in the final third when the plot gets dragged down with the details of Williams trial. The film's strongest sections are where Kelso meets and gets to know Savannah's colorful citizenry. Once the grand jury has delivered the indictment, the film becomes moribund in familiar movie trial tropes and trivial details.

Acting wise, Lady Chablis is a standout, providing a memorably sassy performance. Kevin Spacey is also very good playing a rich Southern dandy with a subtle flamboyance and just the right amount of ambiguity. John Cusack tends to have trouble distinguishing himself amongst the more colorful cast, but that is not a problem as the role does not require him to do much. His character is mostly a witness to the events and it is not until later on in the proceedings that he becomes directly involved.

Overall, I feel confident recommending Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in spite of the flawed later sections as it does not entirely obscure the films strengths. This is a pleasant movie with interesting characters and that also touches upon some deeper themes.

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