[26 July 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Someone once said that The Bible is the greatest screenplay ever conceived. Inside its pages is enough war, sex, drama and comedy to last a normal motion picture production company several lucrative lifetimes. Unfortunately, the makers of the mediocre The Garden (new to DVD from Anchor Bay) must have opted for the Vulgate of St. Schlock. This ridiculous Rapture wannabe has the Devil guarding the last bit of land that used to be Adam and Eve’s stomping ground (yes, it’s that Garden) and looking for a human stupid enough to sample the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge one more time. If the infamous imp is successful, he manages to upend the previous Judgment Day (???) and get the Four Horsemen of said Apocalypse on his side.
If the above plot description made little or no sense, don’t worry. Neither does this dopey, derivative, botched B-movie. Under the auspices of ineffectual director Don Michael Paul (perhaps best known for that Stephen Seagal/Ja Rule classic Half Past Dead) this ridiculous religious allegory is so clunky, so completely devoid of logic or sense that it must be operating under its own self-defined cinematic delusions. Somehow, we are supposed to believe that a trouble young boy (played by the amiable Adam Taylor Gordon) who cuts himself and is plagued by nightmares, is actually God’s instrument on Earth. Sam is apparently capable of seeing visions of impending doom, yet it takes him 70 mindless minutes before he unmasks fright flick stalwart Lance Henriksen as the bumpkin Beelzebub he is.
Naturally, this doesn’t bother his borderline deadbeat Dad (Brian Wimmer). Glad to be free of his nagging, unseen spouse and ready to kick up his heels with some local skirt, he is more than happy to play Lucifer’s pear-eating patsy, as long as it means frequent trips to the local whore-laden watering hole. Father and son are supposed to have one of these deep bonds that exists between cinematic parent and child because…well, because the plot requires it. Besides, without the implied emotional connection, Henriksen’s hilarious maxims about family and faith would be even more nonsensical. As the Devil, the seasoned genre actor is like a constipated self-help guru. He frequently comes across as balanced and well meaning—that is, until we remember that this is Moloch we’re dealing with, a demonic dude hoping to give all of mankind an eternal sulphur sitz bath.
Of course, the whole Heaven vs. Hell dynamic isn’t all this flaccid film has to offer. There’s the delightful sight of a child being whipped mercilessly by his father (with an insert of star Hendrickson lashing a horse—like we needed additional brutality to sell the scene). We also get random zombies, occasional appearances from God’s Sword of Truth, and an unusually somber Sean Young, each one trying to convince us that there’s something otherworldly going on. It’s too bad then that we really don’t care what happens to the fate of the world. Director Paul has muddled the message so badly that Armageddon seems like a good way out of watching the rest of this movie.
Granted, most Biblical allegories take the risk of alienating their audience by the very fact that only the faithful will understand or care about the sacrosanct situation at the center of the story. The Garden is doubly divisive in that it claims the last vestige of God’s untouchable knowledge tree sits somewhere along the Pacific coast, situated in plain sight of anyone who requires a pectin repast. The symbolism is so staid, so patently obvious, that even aliens who believe in a polymorphous blob as their divine lawgiver get the deified drift. Since the metaphors are so blatant, there’s not much mystery. All we have to do is sit and wait for the inevitable afterlife light show. It’s not worth it.
It’s safe to say that The Garden doesn’t fail because of its performances. Everyone in the cast gives it their best, from Wimmer’s schizoid parenting skills (one moment he’s loving and affectionate, the next he’s beating the Bejesus out of his son) to Young’s holier than thou—and with good reason—school marm turn. Hendrickson never fails to imbue his roles with a sense of gravitas. But Satan shouldn’t be this sobering and serious. All throughout the film, Lance looks lost, and he’s required to spout sentiments so sappy that Hallmark would balk at their level of schmaltz. Maybe that’s what damnation is all about. Forget Sisyphus endlessly pushing that rock up the hill. Imagine having to listen to a gravel-voice Devil read from his own copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul until the end of time.
Yet, interestingly, the script is not really the problem, either. Sam Bozzo’s screenplay, which strives for a Michael Tolkin level of speculative realism (which The Player scribe strove for in his masterful movie The Rapture), does try a little too hard, meshing horror movie moments (zombies rising out of blood filled bathtubs) with direct riffs on the Book of Revelations. The constant interruptions by the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse become annoying, not foreboding, and our slight teen hero Sam seems stuck in confrontation mode. He challenges everyone and everything around him, all the better to get the necessary exposition out of the way.
No, the real problem here is Paul’s unimaginative, pedestrian direction. Using a kitchen sink approach to his camerawork, he tosses in Ridley Scott-inspired slow motion and overcranking, a little M. Night Shyamalan slight of hand, and a whole lot of bad CGI to emphasize the ephemeral state in which his characters are cavorting. He will let Lance work up a good head of simmer before moving on to another confrontation between Sam and some stitched up members of the undead. Since the taxidermied terrors are supposed to look totally terrifying, it’s odd how they then become the good guys in the story. Without giving much away, the minute Sam stops being frightened of them, his Messianic mission to save mankind comes to the fore.
The finale, unfortunately, is an anticlimactic bit of movie mumbo jumbo. Satan has a way of subverting the supposedly unsubvertable sword, Sam realizes that he is indeed the savior of the world, and those four foul jockeys of the endtimes ride around like junior rodeo daredevils doing barrel runs. We then must believe that the Devil is capable of being killed, or at least stopped, by a waif-like teen with the upper body strength of an incapacitated invertebrate. In a clear case where bad should beat the snot out of good, God gets all the calls and Heaven holds serve, at least until another noxious volley by the underworld’s worst loser.
And this means we leave The Garden as confused and irritated as when we entered it. Nothing is really resolved; some kind of Biblical equilibrium it restored, that’s all. The last few shots seem to indicate a potential sequel, with the tell tale tree magically disappearing and Legion left huddled in a crawlspace, having reverted back to his serpent state for the time being. One assumes that, if and when the two meet up again, more end of the world wickedness will occur. Let’s hope no one is around to record it. This first visit to The Garden should definitely remain the last.
The Garden - Trailer
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-garden-2005/