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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Clint Eastwood, 1997)


    Iíve avoided viewing Clint Eastwoodís adaptation of John Berendtís Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil for a few years now, even though his previous film, The Bridges of Madison County, similarly adapted from a book that didnít seem obviously destined for greatness on the screen, is my favorite of his works. Upon watching it, though, itís obvious that my fears of a bungled adaptation were misguided. Even though the script adds a token love interest and necessarily condenses the events in Berendtís book, this enjoyable, local color-infused dawdle is a success. Itís an effective motion picture, both as a travelogue and as a demonstration of director's pragmatic politics. It's precisely because Eastwood spends so much time helping us to understand the workings of the minds of small-town Gerogia society that when the film subtly shifts into message movie mode its suggestion of tolerance it doesn't hammer us over the head. In whatís likely the movieís key scene, defense attorney Sonny Seiler addresses his jury and infers that the price of oneís own personal freedom is the agreement to allow freedom to others to live as they choose. Even though the meandering film contains seemingly disparate plot threads and characters, when theyíre all filtered through this central assertion, the movie feels remarkably cohesive, and the quirky charms of its Savannah setting grow deeper, because the directorís investment in them becomes clear.


    Eastwood doesnít necessarily endorse Jim Williams, the filmís homosexual subject, so much as he seems to view him as a test case for his own tolerance. Unlike the town, Eastwood has no objections to the manís sexuality, but he recoils at his slippery refusal to tell the truth about the murder heís committed (behavior which the superficially genteel townspeople fully expect). Kevin Spacey gives an exceptional performance as Williams, relaying, as the filmís title suggests, his suave side as much as his slimy one, and in doing so sets the tone for the rest of the cast. Eastwood views Williams, like all of the residents of Savannah that we meet, with a mixture of humor and bewilderment. The community is a mixture of sophistication and superstition, a place where open secrets thrive, and it throws New York-based protagonist and directorís surrogate John Berendt (John Cusack) for a loop as much as it seems to bemuse the director. A casual movie that always threatens to plod, but never quite can be accused of doing so, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evilís location shooting, diversionary, seemingly inconsequential skits, and unique flavor of the story cohere into a mixture somewhat greater than the sum of its impressive parts. 




Jeremy Heilman