Monday, November 18, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #231 - Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997, dir. Clint Eastwood)

         Anyone who knows me isn’t even a little bit surprised I’m writing a review about Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It’s got all the things I love: true crime, the occult, John Cusack, and it’s set in the South. Based on John Berendt’s non-fiction book of the same name and directed by Clint Eastwood, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil brings all the southern charm Savannah, Georgia has to offer - along with all of its dirty laundry.
The basic plot of the film is as follows. John Kelso (John Cusack), is sent to Savannah to write a 500-word article on a Christmas party held by eccentric local Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). When Williams kills Billy Hanson (a baby-faced Jude Law) in what Williams said was an “act of self-defense,” Kelso decides to stay and cover the trial. Kelso gets sucked into the drama of the trial and Savanah itself, describing it as “Gone with the Wind on mescaline.” It’s the local characters that Kelso meets during his time in Savannah that really make the film.
 Mandy Nicholls (Allison Eastwood, Clint Eastwood’s daughter) is a love interest of sorts for Kelso, as well as helping him break into the morgue to solve the mystery of what actually happened the night Billy Hanson was shot. Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson), Williams' attorney and the owner of the University of Georgia mascot - a long line of English bulldogs named Uga (pronounced “UGH – uh”), adds that unique Southern charm that only Savannah natives can offer. Fun fact about the film - the real life Sonny Seiler plays the judge in the murder trial. Kelso and Williams make a trip to Bonaventure Cemetery to see voodoo practitioner Minerva (Irma P. Hall) in an attempt to communicate with and help calm Billy Hanson’s spirit. Kelso is skeptical to say the least, and Cusack’s scenes with Minerva are some his best acting in the film; he seems genuinely bewildered by what she says and does. But in the end she gives him some great advice - “to understand the living you gotta commune with the dead.” Quite possibly the strangest character Kelso comes into contact with is Luther Driggers (Geoffrey Lewis), a man who keeps flies on strings attached to a shirt and threatens to poison the water supply almost daily with a mystery substance he keeps in a vial that goes with him everywhere, even while he eats his lunch at Clary’s Café. If he enjoys his lunch he will put the vial back in his pocket and be on his way while the entire café breathes a sigh of relief. Last, but certainly not least, playing herself because there isn’t another human on this planet that could do it, The Lady Chablis, a transgender club performer and all around iconic Southern Lady. Kelso comes into contact with her after learning she may have some information about Hanson’s relationship with Williams. The Lady Chablis has her fun with Kelso, making him take her along as his date to a debutante ball he is attending and delivering the best life advice and the best line in the film: “Two tears in a bucket, motherfuck it.” I quote it all the time and most people don’t have a clue where it comes from.
            I can’t talk about this movie without talking about the music. The real Jim Williams lived in famed songwriter Johnny Mercer’s house and Eastwood chose to use the real house in the film (which is now called the Mercer-Williams House and is open for public tours). Hell, I even made my parents take me on a tour of the Mercer-Williams House on a family trip to Savannah. Yes, that’s right, I’ve been in the room where all this went down. This is the reason every song used in the film is a song written by Johnny Mercer. It opens with an absolutely haunting version of “Skylark” sung by k.d. lang. Rosemary Clooney, Cassandra Wilson, Tony Bennett, Allison Eastwood and even director Clint Eastwood contribute covers of some of Mercer's most iconic songs. It keeps that theme of Southern charm going throughout the entire film.
What is most striking about this film is Eastwood cast as many real life people as he could, The Lady Chablis and Sonny Seiler are just a couple of them. It’s what makes the film, which is already based on a true story, work. What better to make something feel more authentic than casting the real life people who were involved? The entire film is a good romp around Savannah, and Eastwood made use of this unique southern town, highlighting many of its most iconic landmarks and colorful locals. I find it to be a highly entertaining film, perfect for a lazy afternoon watch full of laughs, voodoo, an invisible dog being walked on a leash, murder, and a whole lot of Southern charm.

-Anna Lathem  

No comments: