Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

One thing is certain about Clint Eastwood: he doesn't play it safe. Two years ago, he surprised just about everyone (and gave his fans a collective apoplexy) by directing and starring in an ultra-sensitive tearjerker called The Bridges of Madison County. Now, following a romp through more familiar territory in Absolute Power, Eastwood the director is back with this slow, moody adaptation of John Berendt's novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It's a compelling but meandering tale of lust, murder, sex, voodoo, and betrayal. Despite the presence of so many titillating elements, the film's nearly somnambulant pace makes it easy for a viewer to lose his or her concentration.

Midnight in the Garden is the story of New York journalist John Kelso (John Cusack), who travels to Savannah when Town and Country magazine hires him to write a story about the much-ballyhooed annual Christmas bash held by millionaire Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). After a brief discussion with Jim's football-loving lawyer, Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson), John meets Jim, who turns out to be a suave, appealing gentleman with extravagant tastes. The writer is given a brief tour of Jim's opulent house, which was built by the grandfather of songwriter Johnny Mercer. Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, as he waits for the party to begin, John meets some of the locals: a man who walks an imaginary dog, a sexy young woman named Mandy (Alison Eastwood), an attorney-turned-housesitter (Joe Odom), and the brash, cocky Billy Hanson (Jude Law), who is Jim's lover. Then, suddenly, after the party, when John is getting ready to go home, Midnight in the Garden turns into a murder story. Jim shoots and kills Billy under mysterious circumstances, and the question of his innocence is put before a jury. John, seeing the potential to expand his short article into a full-length book, begins his own investigation of the incident, and his detective work leads him to two more unusual citizens of Savannah: transvestite Lady Chablis (playing herself) and Minerva (Irma P. Hall), a voodoo priestess.

As the title indicates, this film is about the everyday clash of "good" and "evil" in one man's life (John's life, to be precise). It's actually a subtle battle -- nothing is as overwrought as what was presented in Devil's Advocate -- but it's a war nonetheless. On one side is the opulent, decadent allure of Jim's lifestyle and friendship, which beckons seductively to John. As is often the case, however, all is not as glamorous as it first appears to be, and there's also betrayal and disillusionment to contend with. On the other side are the simple love of a woman and the recognition of true justice -- things that come without strings attached. Throughout the film, John finds himself buffeted from one camp to the other, constantly groping for his own, personal truth.

Midnight in the Garden would have worked better as a morality play had the "good" aspects of John's struggle been developed more fully than in a series of disjointed, uneven scenes. His love affair with Alison, for example, seems almost like an afterthought, when, in fact, it's a critical element of his redemption. On the other hand, this movie would have been more effective as a courtroom drama/detective yarn had it cut out these subplots altogether. They slow down the pace and rob the narrative of tension. In fact, Midnight in the Garden doesn't have the right running length, regardless of what it's trying to do. It's too short for a dramatic exploration of John's crisis of conscience and too long for a more traditional murder mystery.

In many ways, Midnight in the Garden reminded me of Kasi Lemmons' Eve's Bayou. It's not just the superficial similarities -- a Southern setting, voodoo, multiple perspectives of the same event, and a sensationalistic murder -- although they are there. Rather, both movies investigate the gray moral area that exists when "good" men are led astray. Both John and Jim fight to identify their own ethical comfort zone, and discover that it may not be in the same place. And, as in Eve's Bayou, the power of the spirit (voodoo) becomes the ultimate means of delivering justice. However, while I felt that there was a lack of atmosphere in Eve's Bayou, Eastwood does an excellent job of making Savannah come alive. More than once, I was thirsty for a mint julep or glass of lemonade.

One of the reasons Midnight in the Garden is a pleasure to watch, despite its lengthy running time, is the strength of the actors' performances. John Cusack is perfectly cast as the film's representation of the viewer -- the everyman with a feckless charm. Kevin Spacey does an exceptional job making Jim a charismatic figure who, paradoxically, seems to be both open and secretive. Lady Chablis, a real-life transvestite, makes the biggest splash (and will probably get the most press) with a delightfully comic, over-the-top interpretation of herself. Equally outrageous, but accorded less screen time, is Irma P. Hall's Minerva. And Australian Jack Thomspon, sporting an American accent, offers solid support as Sonny Seiler.

It strikes me that the audience for Midnight in the Garden is likely to be a small, select group, not because the film is bad, but because it demands a certain temperament to enjoy a long, unhurried experience like this. And, while the movie doesn't succeed in effectively developing all of the subplots and secondary themes in its complex tapestry, its main point -- that morality is a relative, not an absolute, quantity -- is presented in a striking fashion. With Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Eastwood has captured a peculiar yet involving slice of life.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:35
U.S. Release Date: 1997-11-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1