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Gardens of the Night (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Gardens of the Night

Gardens of the Night


Starring Gillian Jacobs, Evan Ross, Tom Arnold, John Malkovich, Ryan Simpkins, Kevin Zegers, Jermaine Scooter Smith, Harold Perrineau, Jeremy Sisto, Raynold Gideon and Cornelia Guest.

Screenplay by Damian Harris.

Directed by Damian Harris.

Distributed by City Lights Pictures.  108 minutes.  Not Rated.

I never would have believed that I might ever type the following sentence:

Perhaps the bravest and most nuanced film performance of the year was given by Tom Arnold.

Yes, that Tom Arnold.  Roseanne’s ex.  Bad comedian.  The Best Darned Sports Show Ever.  Schwarzenegger sidekick in True Lies.  Veteran of several failed sitcoms.  Star of the movie version of McHale’s Navy.

Yet, Arnold scorches the celluloid here with one of the most disturbing and intentionally reprehensible characters to appear in a movie in recent memory.  Arnold deserves serious respect for having the nerve to play the man – and for having the talent to make him, if not in any way likable, at least somewhat understandable.

You see, Arnold plays Alex, an unrepentant pedophile who kidnaps a little girl and boy, tricking them to believe their parents have abandoned them, eventually forcing them into pornography and prostitution.  He pulls this off with an accomplice, a disaffected 20-year-old (Kevin Zegers of Transamerica), who appears – though it is never explicitly said – to be an earlier victim of the man.

However, Alex is not the typical movie monster.  He actually appears – at least on the outside – to be a kind and caring man.  It shows how a small child might believe that he truly is a nice man, not quite understanding the horrible lies and mind games the man is responsible for.  Arnold takes his image as a good-natured galoot and turns it into something horribly sinister.

In a recent interview we conducted with Arnold, he showed the depth of the challenge, as he divulged that he took the role to help himself heal from his own childhood experience as a sexual abuse victim.

Like I said, it was a very brave performance.

Even though he is only in about half of the film, Arnold’s performance towers over everything that goes on in Gardens of the Night.  In fact, the second half of the film – in which the little girl and boy have grown up to be homeless prostitute junkies trying to survive alone on the streets (it is never quite explained how or when they got away from Alex) – while arresting, is honestly more predictable and less interesting than what preceded it.

Not to say bad – in fact the performances by stars Gillian Jacobs and Evan Ross are heartfelt and engrossing – we’ve just seen teens struggling through drugs, crime and prostitution before.  The film has a sense of inevitability, and to its favor filmmaker Damian Harris resisted the simplistic happy ending.  Also to the film’s credit, almost all of the more sordid occurrences in the story are handled with the utmost of restraint and tact.

Gardens of the Night is a very dark film which starts out shattering and ends up merely disturbing.  It may be unfair to expect it to stay on the same high level as the first half – and that also might just be impossible to do.  The film also does in the end leave you with some hope for these kids’ survival, though not in the ways you would expect.

This movie may be too small and below-the-radar and its subject matter too controversial to capture much award-season notice, but if it does somehow break through, then Tom Arnold definitely is deserving of serious consideration for a Best Supporting Actor nominee.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 25, 2008.


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