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1 review, 3 user ratings

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Gardens of the Night
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by brianorndorf

"Hey kids, Tom Arnold is comin' to git ya!"
2 stars

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 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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originally posted: 05/02/09 03:25:25
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User Comments

7/05/11 ALBERT A PIECE OF SHIT 1 stars
8/15/09 Jack Sommersby Powerful, true, and unforgettable. 4 stars
5/26/09 Margie Dennis hated it 1 stars
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  07-Nov-2008 (R)



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