If you’ve read John Berendt’s best selling book, MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, you probably remember being immersed in one of the oddest cast of characters on record, oozing Savannah eccentricities as a murder mystery unfolds among them.
It’s probably an un-filmable book, but Clint Eastwood gave it a hell of a try with his 1997 film adaption. John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) adapts the book into a two and a half hour film, but his biggest mistake is creating a new character, magazine writer John Kelso.
He becomes the funnel through which all the flavor, color and madness of Berendt’s characters pass through to us, the viewer. John Cusack plays Kelso with a vanilla blandness, void of the basic reactions most of us would have in his place. It doesn’t destroy the film, but it certainly hampers it.
Kelso is in Savannah to cover local millionaire Jim Williams’ legendary Christmas party in all its Southern glory. Kevin Spacey plays Williams in an early peek at the drawl he would adapt into his role as Frank Underwood in “House of Cards”.
When young Billy Hanson (Jude Law in one of his first roles) is murdered right after the party, Kelso is pulled into a murder trial, a complicated web of southern morals, voodoo, charm and tradition that’s fascinating to watch.
Watching Spacey deal with the murder of a young male lover in his home is a tad awkward with the real-life events that have happened since and it’s only near the conclusion that we see any variance in Spacey’s one-note portrayal of Williams.
The supporting cast is incredible though. Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant) is terrific as Williams defense attorney Sonny Seiler, oozing charm and confidence. Irma P. Hall (The Ladykillers, Collateral) is full of surprises as voodoo mistress Minerva and real life Lady Chablis plays herself, a hilarious drag queen staple of Savannah who becomes entangled in the mystery.
Eastwood’s laid-back style fits the material well, but the film’s pace defines leisurely, some would fairly say it's very slow. I could have used fewer scenes with Kelso courting the local florist, plated by Alison Eastwood. The side plot has little relevance except to show Kelso as incredibly inept at dating.
Watch for Kim Hunter (Zira in the “Planet of the Apes” films) and Geoffrey Lewis (Bronco Billy, Salem’s Lot) as local nut job Luther Driggers.
Driggers character ties three huge horseflies with strings to his neck so they constantly fly around his head wherever he goes. He also carries a vial of poison with him and decides each day if he is going to poison the entire town. The locals pay him various degrees of attention. He’s a good example of the film itself, with different things constantly flying around our heads while we watch, but not all of them landing with any relevance.
The last hour of the film is devoted to the murder trail and it’s immediate aftermath and it’s well crafted, serving up some much needed surprises and twists in the action.
Slow but interesting, well cast except for Cusack, MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL would have been a better film without the Kelso character, leaving the viewers to find their own way through the strangeness of Savannah. There are moments of greatness, especially when formality gives way to gossip and veneer gives way to true, self-serving motivation. I’ll give it an interesting B-.