Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

D: Clint Eastwood
S: John Cusack, Kevin Spacey

Richly textured, supremely atmospheric and subtly modulated adaptation of the best selling 'non-fiction' book from director Clint Eastwood. A rewarding and engrossing tale of murder and sexuality in the South (based on the real life Savannah murder case), the film is a wonderful evocation of mood and tone into which a series of excellent performances inject a strong, independent life of internal sub narratives. The film uncovers layers of dreamlike half worlds within the supposedly rigid class and social structure of the Southern United States, and though it often seems populated by stereotypes, clichés and caricatures, the film takes its time to unfold the many facets of its characters and allows the actors to develop their personalities very nicely.

It may be misperceived as a courtroom thriller, or as a 'message movie' about sexual (in)tolerance, but either approach would make the film unwatchable and overlong. It is far more rewarding to take cues from Eastwood's gorgeous opening scenes (shot, as ever, by Jack Green, edited by Joel Cox and scored by Lennie Niehaus) where the camera glides over the landscape to focus on a voodoo priestess laughing happily at the approach of an airplane as if certain of what outcome the arrival portends. This is a film about a particular world, not a particular plot, and needs to be approached with a sense for the rhythm which Eastwood establishes early on of a hidden netherworld of unconscious wishes and motivations which drive every human being. This is not Reversal of Fortune, though it offers an ambiguous hero/villain in Kevin Spacey, the homosexual millionaire who is put on trial for the murder of his lover and may or may not be guilty. Journalist John Cusack is not so much in search of the truth as discovering that it doesn't matter, and that the only questions one has to answer are those which are important to your sense of self.

Eastwood's direction is supremely confident and assured, handling a large and interesting cast with the ease that comes of being sure where the picture is going before it starts. It is a film in a direct line with some of his more deliberately 'artistic' works such as Bird and White Hunter Black Heart, and continues his fascination with transcending the boundaries of genre to deliver meaningful meditations on cinematic truth. Illusion is a central metaphor of the film, as is perception and discovery, and it doesn't take much of a leap to see this as something more than a series of contrivances to justify its treatment of homosexuals, drag queens and eccentric liars. Eastwood has matched form to content in a beautifully crafted poetic speculation, blending fiction and non fiction as its source did in order to problematise our notions of truth and non truth by way of directing us towards questions of greater importance than whether or not Spacey did it.

Of course this just may be too much pretentiousness for casual audiences, and many will be disappointed that the handling of the mundane details of the case is so unusual. Eastwood does not focus heavily on individual scenes which explain detail, he moves quickly between sequences, building a montage of exposition and narrative progression that may be difficult to follow if your expectations are more conventional. The result can seem like scrappy film making. But taken outside of the context of an ordinary courtroom thriller, it becomes part of the fabric woven by the director to investigate the consequences of lies and half truths in life and in film. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is one of Eastwood's best films as director, a welcome return to form following the less than satisfying Absolute Power. But be warned, just as John Cusack's character discovers about the world he has entered, that it may not be what you expect and that nothing is quite as it seems.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.