Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)


(director: Clint Eastwood; screenwriter: John Lee Hancock; cinematographer: Jack N. Green; editor: Joel Cox; cast: Kevin Spacey (Jim Williams), Jack Thompson (Sonny Seiler), John Cusack (John Kelso), Lady Chablis (Herself), Alison Eastwood (Mandy Nichols), Irma P. Hall (Minerva), Jude Law (Billy Hanson), Paul Hipp (Joe Odom); Runtime: 155; Malpaso/Warner; 1997)

“Spacey’s charm and wit carry this film about as far as it can go.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Clint Eastwood has directed a so-so, pleasantly watchable, leisurely film, marked by two outstanding performances. One is by Jack Thompson, as the defense lawyer Sonny Seiler. The other is by Kevin Spacey, as the gay nouveau riche millionaire, Jim Williams. He’s a big time party giver and cultured antique dealer, and he’s on trial for murder in Savannah. The film takes on the flavor of the nostalgic Old South, as it focuses this morality (the battle of “good” and “evil”) drama around the popular, supposedly non-fiction book that was written by John Berendt.

A New York writer, John Kelso (Cusack), comes to Savannah to write a 500-word story for Town and Country magazine about Jim William’s much publicized Christmas party. He is given a tour of the luxurious house that he learns was built by the songwriter Johnny Mercer’s grandfather in 1860. He makes the acquaintance of a beautiful lady, Mandy (Alison, Clint’s real daughter), and a bland romance begins. He meets an assortment of odd, Savannah characters, causing him to comment: “this place is like a GWTW, but with acid.” The characters include a man who walks his invisible dog (the jazzman, James Moody), a transvestite (Lady Chablis, who plays herself), a man who has horseflies circling his head (they are attached to his clothes with thin pieces of thread), a debarred lawyerwho is now a squatter in a rich man’s house, and a voodoo participant, Minerva (Irma).

There were just too many zanies, causing me to overdose on them. So much of the film seemed to be taken up by these artificial and embarrassingly contrived characters, and not enough time was devoted to the interesting story that was developing.

To the film’s credit, it takes no fixed position on the sexual morality questions that come into play.

After the big Christmas bash Jim’s rough-trade boyfriend and hired furniture restorer, the violently brash, low-life Billy (Jude Law), gets into a conflict with Jim. Jim kills him with one of the pistols from his collection. We are led to believe that he does this in self-defense. It seems that almost everyone in town has some sort of a pistol, as much is made of the guests carrying pistols to the party. So the killing by pistol doesn’t become the big issue; but the fact that Jim has come out of the closet, that does not seem to be tolerated in Savannah’s high society or by the ordinary folks who will make-up the jury.

The film then turns into a courtroom drama and Sonny Seiler shines as the silky tongued, good ole country boy lawyer.

John Kelso hangs around town, seeing if he can make hay for himself by writing a true book about the murder. The film then becomes about his quest, as he struggles with his own questions about what is the right thing to do. He is indebted to Jim for his graciousness, but is conflicted by what is the truth about the murder. Cusack just seems to get by with that cute smile of his and the film suffers from any real emotion. It is difficult to be too concerned about the victim or the accused, or for that matter about any of the denizens of Savannah.

It is interesting to note that the real Sonny Seiler played the judge.

Spacey’s charm and wit carry this film about as far as it can go. We are left with a colorful film, trying to subtly make a statement on morality but succeeding mostly in catching the quaint atmosphere prevalent in Savannah.