According to Minerva, a voodoo practitioner in the book and film of this name, the half-hour before midnight is for good magic; the half hour afterward is for evil. Metaphorically, much of the action takes place precisely at the top of the clock. The book is literary journalism, describing the death of a young man in Savannah, Ga., in 1981, and the subsequent murder trial of his high-society patron. The 1997 film is an adaptation, based on reality as described in the book but not obsessively faithful to it.
The book, by John Berendt, was published by Random House in 1994 and sat on bestseller lists for four years. Berendt, a one-time editor of New York Magazine, first visited Savannah in 1985, and moved there shortly afterward. He spent eight years soaking up the seaside town's history and character, and the book is as much the story of Savannah as that of redneck gigolo Danny Hansford and bon vivant antique-dealer Jim Williams. The film sticks closer to its murder-mystery core while still painting a vivid picture of the eccentrics who thrive in Old Savannah's antebellum mansions amid the Spanish Moss.
The movie, directed by Clint Eastwood in one of his artier moods, features Kevin Spacey and John Cusack, each of whom has been called the greatest actor of his generation. Spacey plays Jim Williams; Cusack plays John Kelso, a heavily fictionalized version of Berendt, who works with Williams's defence team to get closer to the story he wants to write. A pre-famous Jude Law plays Billy Hanson, the fictionalized version of Hansford.
The film is well-written and evokes plenty of the Old South's charm (and the seaminess behind the façade), but it's draggy in several spots, clocking in at more than two-and-a-half hours. The script lingers too often on "Lady Chablis," a Savannahan playing herself -- presumably Eastwood couldn't bring himself to tell her he was cutting her screen-time back -- but a pure throwaway scene involving her and Cusack at a debutante ball is the best in the picture. It loses its way when writer John Lee Hancock allows it to get stuck in Williams's trial for many minutes at a time. Savannah is interesting; courtroom scenes are a dime a dozen.
Cusack does the fine job he usually does playing a city boy out of his element. Spacey's performance is understated, but effective in portraying Jim Williams as a man who enjoys his earned wealth and influence ever-so-slightly slightly more than is good for him.
Few people who see the movie seem happy with the way either of the movie's major plot threads conclude. Reading the book takes longer than watching the movie, but the rewards are greater.