Gold stars all around to the filmmakers behind "Gardens of the Night," who dare to dramatize impossible situations of sexual and psychological torture inflicted on innocent children. It's a difficult viewing experience that struggles to conjure real world fears within a melodramatic framework, and while the effort is valiant, "Gardens" doesn't always hit its desired mark of profundity. It's a wobbly plunge into grotesque acts of inhuman violation, with the patchy acting often blocking the true horror on display.
Kidnapped at age 8, Leslie (Ryan Simpkins) struggles to understand her dire situation. Told by her abductor Alex (Tom Arnold) that she's no longer wanted at home, Leslie's resistance has been slowly chipped away, allowing Alex an opportunity to sell the girl sexually to a series of reprehensible men. Now finding herself a hardened teenager living on the streets with "brother" Donnie (Evan Ross), Leslie (now played by Gillian Jacobs) is hoping a chance encounter with a social worker (John Malkovich) at a shelter is her ticket to safety, away from a world of prostitution and drugs. Struggling to summon the courage to leave her past behind, Leslie finds herself hopelessly drawn to old habits, seeking comfort in her makeshift family of lost souls and predators.
"Gardens of the Night" isn't ambitious with its subject matter, trusting the ground zero nightmarish qualities of the story will be more than enough to shock the viewer into total submission. After all, the film spotlights the exploitation of children, meticulously constructing a frightening path for Leslie that contains drugging, child pornography, mental abuse, and rape, making for a tough sit, especially in the film's first half that deals with the young Leslie. However, "Gardens" is far from tawdry; writer/director Damian Harris eases into the rough stuff through carefully composed cinematography and a symbolic "Jungle Book" residue that has Leslie and Donnie seeking asylum inside a fantasy world. For the opening act, "Gardens" hits crushing notes of horror and bodily intrusion that creates a needed red alert environment to speak on important topics of manipulation.
Once Leslie grows up and sheds her innocence, "Gardens" morphs into a simplistic, coarser basic cable production, with Harris relinquishing control over the frightening mood to his limited cast. Many scenes resemble Actors Studio audition tapes, with talent both young and old looking to stun the camera with their harshly calculated emoting and overplayed quirk (Harold Perrineau, here as one of Leslie's early aggressors, is abysmally over the top). Jacobs and Simpkins are wonderfully vulnerable in their shared role, and Arnold makes a convincing child porn peddler, but much of "Gardens" is swallowed by the flamboyant acting, stealing attention away from where it rightfully should be: the slow, painful hardening of Leslie's soul.
The anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio) presentation doesn't adequately match what seems to be a lofty photographic intent of the film. EE is a problem throughout the DVD experience, along with murky black levels, making a few sequences difficult to appreciate. Detail is sparse, with the best image quality arriving with daylight action.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is limited to dialogue and claustrophobic environments, and it all works well considering the sound levels never rise above mild excitement. Surround channels are rarely employed, and only seem to factor into the film when the characters encounter more lurid, echoy acts of abuse. Dialogue and soundtrack selections are balanced agreeably.
Spanish subtitles are available.
A feature-length audio commentary with writer/director Damian Harris is riddled with long pauses, which can make the listening experience frustrating at times. When Harris is inspired to chat, he dishes intelligently on the making of the film, especially his troubles with casting (Tom Arnold replaced Jeff Daniels at the last minute) and the overall industry reluctance toward the unpleasant story. Harris is a confident, engaging speaker...when he wants to talk. If you can manage the pauses, this track is a marvelous education on production and thematic intention.
"Alternate Ending" (5:36) is a first pass at the conclusion of the film, with a different set of actors and a more bitter, condensed ending. Unfortunately, it's still the same unappetizing result, only here the emotion has been drained from the screenwriting.
"Deleted Scenes" (8:18) reinforces the theme of stolen innocence for the characters, with Leslie witnessing various incidents of vulnerability that confuse her further.
"Mini Documentary" (8:44) explores the nuts and bolts of the "Gardens" production, interviewing cast and crew on-set for their thoughts on characterization. This is basic promotional fodder (with a few spoilers I'm trying to avoid in this review), but the chance to watch the talent beyond the limits of the screen is a treat.
"Scroll with Statistics" (2:42) is a list of sobering facts and figures on all forms of child abuse.
"Photo Gallery" (8:07) is a wonderful assortment of stills capturing life on the "Gardens" set. Most hold incredible artistic value, making the DVD feature a cut above the norm.
The massive quaking of Leslie's teenaged conscience promises to guide "Gardens" to an interesting resolution, but Harris reaches for ham-fisted poetry when dissecting the reality is far more compelling. Still, the picture discusses essential topics of exploitation and psychological wounding that carry it a certain palatable length. Various question mark B-list cameos also add spice (Peta Wilson, Jeremy Sisto, and even Michelle Rodriguez pops up for a split-second, though you never see her face). In the end, "Gardens of the Night" is a film that should rightfully terrify and confront, but it mostly stands still, assuming it doesn't have to work up a sweat to attain a greater importance.
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