City Lights Media // 2008 // 110 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 2nd, 2009
A frank look at a terrifying world.
"I promise I will never hurt you. I would never do that."
Leslie (Gillian Jacobs, Choke) is a very troubled young woman. She's under 18 years old, but she has been a street-savvy prostitute for years. She's a drug addict, an alcoholic, and has an endless supply of serious personal issues. She has just been checked into a homeless shelter dedicated to helping troubled young women recover from the effects of such a life. Once upon a time, Leslie was a sweet young girl being raised by a loving family. How on earth did she end up in such a bad place at such a young age? Gardens of the Night tells the chilling story of Leslie's abduction, corruption, and destruction.
Gardens of the Night is one of those films that unfortunately suffers from Full Metal Jacket syndrome. It's a somewhat uncommon but nonetheless potent cinematic disease that appears every now and then. You know a film is suffering from Full Metal Jacket syndrome when a very strong and memorable first half featuring great performances is followed by a weak and uninspired second half featuring forgettable performances. The bad news is that you're only getting half of a great film. The good news is that if the good half is strong enough, the film will still be well-regarded in retrospect. I think that the first half of Gardens of the Night is just barely strong enough to merit a recommendation based on the strengths of the first 50 minutes.
During that portion of the film, we are introduced to a man named Alex (Tom Arnold, Pride). Alex is looking for his dog. He sees a little girl walking down the street. "Have you seen a little white dog?" he inquires. She shakes her head no. "That's a shame," he sighs. "I can't find her anywhere. She ran off with some Labrador, and now I can't find her." The girl informs Alex that she has a Labrador. "You do? Do you mind if I go over to your house and take a look?" The girl reluctantly agrees. Alex does not find a white dog at the little girl's house. "Oh, look, I've probably made you late for school," he says to the girl. "Hop in the car, I'll give you a ride there." And so, by making the decision to enter Alex's car, young Leslie (Ryan Simpkins, Revolutionary Road) begins the darkest journey of her life.
I've never been a huge fan of Tom Arnold as an actor, but frankly, casting him in this role was nothing short of a stroke of genius. Arnold is absolutely pitch-perfect as a sweetly convincing child molester, masking his monstrous intentions with self-loathing sadness and good-natured acts of kindness. He goes to elaborate lengths to win the trust of young Leslie, but sometimes we begin to wonder whether he isn't partially going to such lengths to convince himself that he is doing the right thing. Perhaps if he engages in enough fantasy role-playing as a protective father figure, he can convince himself that he is something other than what he actually is. It's a remarkable marriage between the actor and the role, and Arnold guides us through a positively harrowing depiction of a very unpleasant situation.
The film is obviously dealing with very sensitive material. Not only is child sexual abuse a very sensitive subject, a filmmaker has to be careful when asking a very young actor like Simpkins to participate in the proceedings. The scenes that head into nasty territory are handled with expert subtlety, and they're actually very effective. Imagining what may be happening offscreen is perhaps even more horrifying than actually seeing it, because our minds are being provoked into conjuring up appalling scenarios. Simpkins and young co-star Jermaine Scooter Smith (playing a young boy who has also been abducted) both do a very fine job in the film, providing a moving innocence and depth that provides heartbreaking contrast to the multi-layered schemes of Alex and his greasy cohort Frank (Kevin Zegers, The Jane Austen Book Club).
I'm sorry to report that the film doesn't look particularly good on DVD. The level of detail here is very unimpressive, as most background images look fuzzy and muddled. Darker scenes (there are quite a few) seem murky throughout, bordering on incomprehensible at times. The image often seems rather flat and lifeless, though I imagine part of this simply comes from the intentionally drab aesthetic of the film. There's a sense throughout that any visual life is being suppressed, as best evidenced in a title sequence featuring colorful animated images being covered in a load of scratches and grain. The generally low-key audio is perfectly acceptable, never providing anything remarkable but rarely offering anything much to complain about. The DVD includes an audio commentary with director Damian Harris, who has some interesting things to say despite being somewhat quiet. You also get a making-of featurette, some statistics on subjects addressed in the film, some deleted scenes (including an alternate ending), and a photo gallery.
While the first half of the film delivers a chilling portrayal of child abduction and abuse, the film loses all steam when it jumps ahead 10 years to Leslie's life as a street-walker. It's evident that the film has been very carefully researched, but somehow the very honest portrayal starts to feel a little less organic and a lot more staged during this portion. Frankly, Leslie just isn't as interesting a character as a teenager, and the events portrayed feel like re-heated variations on scenes from other movies about prostitution and drug use. Not even a brief supporting turn from the ever-wonderful John Malkovich can bring much interest to the proceedings. This material is perfectly honorable and well-done, I suppose, but it lacks the raw power and emotional impact of the earlier stuff.
For the expertly crafted first 50 minutes alone, Gardens of the Night deserves to be seen. Recommended for viewers with a strong stomach who are interested in seeing a serious look at a serious subject.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: City Lights Media
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Photo Gallery