Trawling some of the same waters as the bestselling book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Salome Breziner's Dixieland mystery never seems to take full advantage of the possiblities offered by its premise. The film premiered on HBO, and then went directly to home video.
A young couple is murdered as they have sex by a deserted riverbank outside of Charleston, South Carolina. The man is Alex Laughton (Stephen Lang), a Civil War historian and professor at a nearby college. In what seems like an act of deliberately fatal irony, Laughton is killed by a 1860's era
musket. The body of his waitress lover, Jeri (Kari Wuhrer), disappears.
Laughton's wife Elizabeth (Valeria Golino) would be the obvious suspect, except there is no evidence that any of Alex's vintage Civil War rifles has been fired recently. Shunned by everyone else in the small community, Elizabeth turns to another faculty member, ex-cop and novelist Ernie DeWalt
(Tom Berenger), to help find her wayward husband's killer. Charmed and attracted to her, he accepts the job despite the consequences of physical injuries he sustained long before, when he was a cop. (He lost both kidneys in a firefight, and must spend a part of each day hooked up to a dialysis
Dusting off his detective skills, Ernie questions the Jewetts, a family of rural folk who live not far from the murder site. They all swear they didn't hear the fatal musket-shot. Digging deeper, he also discovers a business relationship between Alex and Jeri's drug-dealing husband Rodney (Richard
Edson). When local detective Larry Abbott (Robert Davi) tells him of the robbery of a Civil War musket from a museum in Savannah, Ernie deduces that Alex hired the Jewetts to steal the rifle for him, but was shot by the half-witted Draper Jewett (Geoffrey Lewis) when the deal went wrong. Elizabeth
is finally absolved from blame when Draper, racked by remorse, kills himself. The Jewett's yard is dug up, and Jeri's body turns up at last.
Even with the murder mystery, a romantic subplot between the emotionally wounded Ernie and Elizabeth, and Ernie's occasional hallucinations of the maddeningly sultry Jeri, AN OCCASIONAL HELL feels decidedly underplotted. One suspects Randall Silvis's screenplay (based on his novel) has excised
many of the characters and setting details. The result is a by-the-numbers thriller that takes every opportunity not to be distinctive.
Tom Berenger's Ernie seems a bit too much the slow-talking rube at first, but his character makes increasing sense as his environment is revealed; the notion of an action hero who must pause four times a day to connect his urethra to a kidney machine is certainly an interesting one. Kari Wuhrer is
every inch the direct-to-video sex kitten here, yet she occasionally shows flashes of an Ashley Judd-like cheekiness, too. Silvis alludes to, but doesn't develop, Jeri's role as sexual tormentor and artistic muse. Here's a case where a little more off-kilter, novelistic detail might have made a
fair movie into a good one. (Extensive nudity, profanity, violence.).
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