Long before he took on the gravitas of playing Jesus, actor Jim Caviezel was known for rarely cracking a smile. So his turn as a whimsical, hard-drinking duck hunter with a touch of the poet about him in “Savannah” would stand out if that was all it had to recommend it.
A picaresque/Faulkneresque tale of the Old South turning new in the years just after World War I, “Savannah” has Caviezel playing a colorful, larger than life local in that sleepy Low Country Georgia port town.
One of the things that makes you “larger than life” is the way other people tell colorful stories about you. And Ward Allen has that going for him.
“Did I ever tell you about how Ward Allen beat up them Russians?”
That’s a favorite of the old black man named Christmas (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Ward Allen’s boon companion and best friend. We meet him when Jack Cay (Bradley Whitford) shows up, in 1954, to move Christmas Moultrie, born a slave, out of the house he’s known all his life.
In flashbacks, we meet Ward Allen (Caviezel), see the incident that prompted a brawl over in Czarist Russia (it involves an inept barber and a mustache accident) and get a taste of the life that Allen and Moultrie lived in a Savannah when many were old enough to have memories of the war polite Southerners refer to as “The Late Unpleasantness.”
Allen was born rich, educated at Oxford, but someone who turned his back on a legal or literary career, “a man of letters who has returned to nature.” But he’s no Thoreau, he insists. Allen loves his guns and lives to duck hunt. He and Christmas ignore limits, seasons and game wardens as “market hunters,” shooting as fast they can reload to supply local restaurants with fresh mallard meat. More often than not, that lands them in court.
Ward Allen, in his shirtsleeves, duck waders and often as not two or three sheets to the wind, regales the court and the judge (Hal Holbrook) until the judge lets him off with probation.
“Liberty plucks justice by the nose!” Allen crows with each legal victory.
Then a local rich girl (Jaimie Alexander) decides that she won’t have the rich fop (Jack McBrayer of TV’s “30 Rock”) her father (Sam Shepard) picked out for her.
“I am neither yours to dispense or withhold,” the feisty and independent Lucy declares. She sets her sights on “a real man,” Allen.
Almost despite himself, and ignoring the warnings of Christmas (“A woman ain’t an argument to be won.”), Allen courts and marries the fair Lucy. And that’s when the trouble starts, because he’s not giving up his booze or his ducks for family life.
“Never touch my guns,” he says, adding one more thing he won’t give up.
It’s a gorgeous-looking film, and director and co-writer Annette Heywood Carter evokes a marvelous sense of a time and place, that civil South that the movies insist existed before the Civil Rights South. Christmas only rarely feels the sting of racism, which Allen dismisses even if you suspect that what Christmas says is true. If Allen wasn’t his friend, life would be much more dangerous for an independent-minded black man in 1920s Georgia.
The dialogue is beautifully florid, and you can see why this cast was drawn to the project. But the generically-titled “Savannah” meanders like a river making its way through Low Country marshland, teetering toward the tragic in its later chapters and never quite achieving the whimsy it aims for in the early ones.
Ejiofor and Caviezel, playing real-life figures from that slice of Georgia history, are entirely too young in 1920s Georgia to have lived through the Civil War some 60 years before.
But “Savannah” gets by on touches of grace and spirited performances, especially by Caviezel. After being so serious for so very long, it’s great fun to see him take on a “genuine character” with all the boozing, brawling and shooting that entails.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief sexuality.
Cast: Jim Caviezel, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jaimie Alexander, Sam Shepard, Hal Holbrook, Bradley Whitford
Credits: Directed by Annette Heywood-Carter, written by Kenneth Carter and Annette Heywood Carter. A Ketchup Entertainment release
Running time: 1:46