Home > Film, Literature, Reviews > Film Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Film Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997; Directed by Clint Eastwood)

Meet the New South, same as the Old South. This was the general takeaway message of John Berendt’s colourful and seductive best-selling book about a high-profile murder in Savannah, Georgia and the rogue’s gallery of eccentric characters and situations circling around it. It’s also, to a lesser extent, the message of Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of the book, with multiple emphases on “lesser”. Despite its rich source material, the cinematic take on Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a stilted and inert affair whose attempts approximating the quirky Southern Gothic black comedy of the book tend to fall flatter than a Coastal Georgian diphthong.

For those unfamiliar with Berendt’s charming book, it’s a non-fiction account (with some likely unacknowledged novelized elements) of the author’s time as a semi-permanent resident of Savannah, a balmy, insular city on the Atlantic coast full of preserved Southern antebellum architecture and vestigial noblesse oblige in equal measure, with a bit of occult mystery thrown into the stew as well. Berendt’s narrator (which is ostensibly, though not absolutely clearly, himself) arrives as a stranger in town, but soon makes the acquaintance of many of its peculiar characters.

His first new friend is Joe Odom, a barrister, speculator, piano player, and bon vivant who squats his way from one luxury townhouse to the next, evading rent and creditors and the law but never losing his cheery demeanor. He also meets Serena Dawes, a former society beauty of the 1940s whiling away her days in decaying magnificence in her bedroom, along with her mismatched boyfriend Luther Driggers, a mentally-disordered inventing genius who attaches string leashes to flies, concocts dyes to make aquarium fish glow in the dark, and possesses a bottle of poison potent enough to kill every living thing in the city. There’s society debutantes, publicity-hungry heritage building restorers, football-loving good-ol’-boy lawyers, a voodoo priestess and a highly expressive African-American drag queen named the Lady Chablis.

The central narrative of the book and of the film, however, focuses on Jim Williams, a debonair antiques dealer who lives in a magnificent mansion and holds lavish Christmas parties that are the highlight of Savannah’s social calendar. Williams also has a closely-guarded private life, which involves same-sex intimacy with Danny Hansford, a volatile redneck hustler described by another (female) character as “a walking streak of sex”. Williams employs Hansford for furniture restoring and, ahem, other services, but theirs is an occasionally hostile relationship. The two men pull guns on each other one night in the midst of a particularly heated argument, and, under contentious circumstances, Hansford is shot dead by Williams’ German Luger.

The four subsequent murder trials that result take up the lion’s share of the book. Eastwood’s film version, its adapted screenplay by John Lee Hancock, condenses this drawn-out, complex, shady process of Southern justice into a single trial, changes the name of the victim for no apparent reason (to Billy Hanson, played with smouldering insolence by a young Jude Law), and finds roles in the proceedings for the more colourful supporting figures from Berendt’s sketches of Savannah: Driggers is a juror, Chablis testifies to Hanson’s drug use and violent tendencies, etc.

The courtroom scenes otherwise transfer the themes that are predominant in the book faithfully to the screen, encompassing the theatrical folksiness of Southern lawyers, official tenderfooting around the region’s homophobic prejudice, and the casual, irresponsible police work that cripples otherwise strong criminal cases. An eerie, unintentional ominousness is imparted as well by the Georgia state flag behind the judge’s bench, which prominently featured a Confederate battle flag design at the time of production (added to the flag only in 1956, the infamous “Stars and Bars” was removed in 2001). The richness of Williams’ legal odyssey is diminished, as the local political wrangling between the rookie D.A. (supported by Williams’ rival, Lee Adler) and Williams’ defence team is removed, but much of the effect is preserved. The hidebound traditionalism of Eastwood’s filmmaking is well-suited to the established genre of the courtroom drama, and trudges along satisfactorily in these moments.

Where Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fails is on the level of quixotic detail, that multitude of bizarre grace notes that makes Berendt’s book such a delight to read. It isn’t that Eastwood doesn’t find room for these details, exactly. They’re mostly there: Uga, the live bulldog mascot of the University of Georgia football team in the charge of Williams’ lawyer Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson; the real Seiler has a supporting role as the judge in Williams’ trial), gets some loving close-ups, Mr. Glover walks the invisible, long-deceased dog of his employer, society ladies compares tales of their husbands’ suicides, and Driggers walks out on his diner breakfast without eating a bite, his leashed flies buzzing around him. These fragments are faithfully included, but feel shoehorned in; they’re here because they were in the book and Hancock liked them enough to airlift them in (certain telling details, like the Nazi flag that Williams places in his window to disturb a film crew, are left out).

The two most notable eccentrics that find their way into significant film roles are the aforementioned voodoo specialist Minerva (Irma P. Hall) and the drag queen Chablis Deveau. The latter plays herself, in one of two strokes of casting genius on display (Kevin Spacey’s exquisite Jim Williams is the other). Although Chablis seems a mite deliberate in front of the camera and is not the flamboyant, voluble figure that she comes across as in the book, she’s still the best thing about the movie by a Georgia mile. Her interplay with the reporter protagonist John Kelso (played, but only barely, by John Cusack) is sharp and delightful; he never knows quite how to handle her or what to expect next, but is hopelessly under her thumb nonetheless. Their interaction is much more enjoyable than that between Kelso and his heteronormative love interest, Mandy (played by Alison Eastwood, Clint’s daughter; Hollywood nepotism, check). It may be wrong to hope that they end up together, but if it is, then I don’t want to be right.

Chablis’ grandest performance in the book was her party-crashing appearance at the Alpha Phi Alpha debutante ball, the premiere social event of the respectable African-American community in Savannah. So it is in the film, as her plain-spoken spiels to the organizers, brazen flirtation with the debutantes’ male escorts, and booty-shaking dancefloor appearance let the air out of the aristocratic pretensions of the ball (which features extensive vetting of the background of the debutantes and a showcase minuet). Chablis manages to break through the Eastwoodian squareness and be kind of fun for a minute or two, but the director overplays his hand badly with wide-eyed reaction shots by the black men at the ball (who, it’s offensively implied, are looking for any excuse to toss away their napkins and go buck wild). Anyone who saw Eastwood onstage at the 2012 Republican National Convention, secure in the belief that talking to an empty chair as if he was lecturing a disobedient African-American President was absolute A+ comedic material, shouldn’t be surprised that he doesn’t know what’s funny here and pushes too hard to figure out what is.

Additionally, Eastwood’s depiction of Minerva’s midnight graveyard antics, undertaken on behalf of Williams to affect his legal proceedings, likewise reproduces the common trope of the primitive, spiritualist “magic negro”. Even if much of this material is again translated closely from Berendt’s text, it’s more than a little cartoonish on screen. Hall even utters the stock movie-voodoo phrase “bad juju” at one point, seemingly faintly embarrassed to have to do so. The pigeonholed roles of both whites and blacks in the film ultimately push the central implication of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil into a stark and uninsightful epigram. In the South, it is the place of blacks to be sexual, spiritual, and marginal, while whites, no matter how silly or eccentric or dedicated to byzantine social tenets and simmering prejudices they may be, are entitled to greater comfort, wealth, influence, and clouded justice. Berendt’s text produced this thesis as subtle, observant satire; Eastwood’s reproduces it as awkward, concentrated reinforcement.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

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