Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of John Berendt’s best selling novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is an offbeat choice for the director, an experimental film involving courtroom drama, voodoo, and bizarre characters all set in the southern town of Savannah, Georgia. John Berendt’s book had been on the best-selling list for four years when Eastwood decided to put the story up on the big screen, changing the novels main character of Berendt into John Kelso, played by John Cusack. Kelso is a New York writer who is sent to Savannah to cover a Christmas party thrown by Jim Williams, played by Kevin Spacey, a famed antique dealer who is responsible for the restoration of many of the mansions seen in the film. Eastwood uses a languid pace for the film, capturing perfectly the lazy feel of the city and its inhabitants.
From the first character we meet, Minerva played by Irma P. Hall, a local voodoo witch who laughs maniacally as John Kelso’s plane flies over it is made clear that Savannah is a unique city with a strong spiritual undercurrent running through it. People here do not follow society’s normal conventions with a perfect example being when Kelso and Jim are taking a stroll they see a man walking what appears to be an invisible dog. Jim explains that the man was instructed to be paid $15 every week by the deceased owner for walking the dog and will continue to do so even though the dog died over twenty years before because who else would do it? In a cafe Kelso runs into Luther Driggers a man who apparently was a genius but had his company steal his idea so now has horseflies attached to strings floating around him and a vial of poison which he may one day use to taint Savannah’s water supply. When Kelso inquires at the cafe whether the waitress thinks he is actually capable of it she replies “When you’ve lived here as long as I have, you start to believe anything about anybody.”
Critics biggest complaint of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was the films running time cluttering the film with scenes that never should never have left the editing room as well as some characters that could have been cut entirely. Kelso’s relationship with Mandy is one such relationship that feels tacked onto the film as their scenes offer no real chemistry and only distract from the films major storyline.
In his first two nights in Savannah Kelso manages to meet a gang of wild and eccentric characters such as Joe Odom, a man who seems to be constantly on the move and due to financial issues is never sure where he is going to sleep that night. Billy Hanson’s character, played by a brilliant Jude Law, really makes an impact in the brief amount of screen time which he is afforded. It is his character and his volatile relationship with Jim that sets the films main narrative arc underway. In an off-screen shooting and killing that Kelso is not there to witness and therefore neither the audience, Jim Williams kills Billy Hanson. Jim’s story for the police says that Billy fired at him first and that he was only acting in self defence yet the lack of gunpowder on Billy’s hands lead the police to think that he was murdered.
Kelso has become so enthralled with the city and its characters in the two days he’s spent there that with the shooting thrown on top he feels like he will have enough material for a book. Telling his publisher over the phone everything that he has seen so far in the deceptively quiet town he remarks that “New York is boring.” He will do some investigating around town and see whether he can discover some more information about Billy and the real relationship he has with Jim Williams.
The investigation leads him to one of Billy old haunts and introduces us to one of the films most memorable characters, Lady Chablis. Lady Chablis has a larger than life personality which blends well with the calm, relaxed persona of John Cusack’s Kelso. She/he is a transvestite who’s real name is Frank who we learn performs in an adult entertainment show in which her true gender is kept a secret, something she refers to as her ‘T’, or truth. Frank is more than familiar with the dark underbelly of Savannah and its seedy characters exposing Billy Hanson as a violent thug who beat up his old girlfriend and who would commonly keep a stash of drugs around the house.
Jim Williams’s trial is the main story thread of the film with Williams’s attorney Sonny Selier, played by Australian actor Jack Thompson, stealing the courtroom scenes with his southern flair and plain speaking making him captivating to watch. As the story unfolds we learn that Billy and Jim had a semi-secret homosexual relationship which taints Jim in the minds of the old fashioned jury. In performing his own investigation Kelso learns that due to shoddy police work, Billy’s hands were not bagged at the scene and therefore the gunpowder residue could have been wiped off before arriving at the hospital. This is the ammunition which Sonny uses in order to win the case and free Jim from jail. However before revealing this bit of information to Jim, Kelso hears his confession that Billy never actually fired the gun, something which Kelso and Jim decide to keep between themselves.
One of the main problems with the film is with the impressive cast which Eastwood assembled; it does not feel like each character is given their fair amount of care and screen time they deserve. Minerva’s character is pivotal in the film as she can communicate with the dead and is responsible for Billy’s retribution from beyond the grave, yet her character feels silly and contrived. Also, more of the relationship between Jim and Billy feels like it should have been witnessed with Jude Law’s fiery character feeling wasted with such a minimal amount of screen time.
The films strongest point is undoubtedly the performance of Kevin Spacey as the bon vivant Jim Williams. With an enigmatic smile and effortlessness Kevin Spacey makes his character feel like he’s a few steps ahead of everyone else throughout the film. He blends in perfectly well with the laziness and oddball feel of his surroundings, seeming to be the ideal personification of Savannah itself.