2 out of 4 stars
Although set and shot in one of Georgia’s grandest and most iconic cities, the misleadingly titled period-piece “Savannah” could have taken place almost anywhere in the deep South or, for that matter, anywhere water fowl fly. Based on the book “Ward Allen: Savannah River Market Hunter” by John Eugene Cay Jr., “Savannah” is top-heavy with the type of Southern stereotypes that, while sometimes accurate, are often cartoonish in execution and makes the inhabitants of the coastal town at the turn of the 20th century feel more like founders of the fictional backwoods North Carolina TV town Mayberry.
Adapted by director Annette Haywood-Carter and her husband Ken Carter, the film strives for the offbeat quirkiness of “Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil” mixed with the folksy innocence of “Forrest Gump” and achieves neither. Instead we get a slight story that would make for a decent sub-plot in a basic cable mini-series steeped in forced melodrama.
As played by Jim Caviezel, Allen is exactly what might come to mind when imagining a heavy-drinking man’s man who was both a rakish rascal and silver-tongued rogue. Born in 1856, Allen was educated in Europe, well-versed in Shakespeare and rather than follow in the more refined and genteel footsteps of his forbearers (which resulted in the loss of a handsome inheritance) he chose a career as a modestly-paid sportsman.
Arguably the most emotionally divergent and multi-faceted character Caviezel has ever played, the part of Allen allows the actor to be both the pro- and antagonist at the same time. It helps that there is no evil foil or villain with whom Caviezel must share screen time with and that all of the other male characters in the film are essentially one-dimensional. The highest profile of these is the English-Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofer co-starring as Christmas Moultrie.
Born into slavery in 1863, Moultrie was the Tonto or Robin to Allen’s Lone Ranger or Batman. Not quite subservient but also written to stay in his place, Moultrie worked alongside Allen for decades as they both hunted for fowl along the Savannah River. The pair made their living supplying local restaurants but thanks largely to Allen’s boisterous personality and off-the-clock antics, were continually being arrested and prosecuted for hunting infractions, most notably exceeding their allowed limits.
There are a handful of scenes in the movie depicting their trials and while entertaining in their own way, these chunks of the narrative play out like farcical Kangaroo Court. Like the majority of onlookers in the courtroom, Joe Rice (Hal Holbrook), the presiding judge in all of the trials was interested less in the law or justice and more in how far or animated Allen — always defending himself — would go to escape guilt. During one trial (that didn’t include Moultrie as a co-defendant), Rice had little choice but to find Allen guilty for his infractions but the sentence imposed was little more than a hard slap on the wrist.
Perhaps realizing this mismatched-buddy-action-comedy thing might result in limiting their already slim demographic, the filmmakers introduce Lucy Stubbs (Jaimie Alexander) early on as Allen’s love interest. Scarlett O’Hara minus the psychosis or arrogant air of privilege, the pale, raven-haired Lucy is a spunky, headstrong type who is deeply enamored with Allen and might eventually lose interest in him if it weren’t for the constant objections of her father (Sam Shepard). Like a petulant child, Lucy fights the most for what she’s told she can’t have.
The beginning of the third act sees the story going from relatively light-hearted to mostly serious and depressing. Something very distressing and disheartening happens to one of the characters and it throws the entire tone of the narrative off-kilter; the narrative is simply taken too far to the other extreme. Making everything all the more frustrating is the lack of closure offered for two of the principal characters. You can’t ask the audience to make an emotional investment in colorful non-fictional personalities such as these and then deny them a satisfactory payoff.
For Georgians — or anyone fond of or familiar with Savannah — Haywood-Carter is able offset the multitude of storytelling gaffs by including some truly breathtaking aerial shots of the north Georgia coastline and in particular the surrounding marshlands. Over the decades there have been hundreds of feature films shot in and around Savannah but most go heavy on the Spanish moss-strewn vegetation and ecclectic architecture; few if any have ever ventured beyond the confines of the downtown area and captured such glorious visuals. (Ketchup Entertainment)