An indie-produced labor of love that never quite rises above the level of lightly likable, “Savannah” is an old-fashioned and anecdotal drama about a colorful eccentric who refuses to be bound by law or domesticated by marriage in early 20th-century Georgia. Theatrical prospects are dubious, but “Person of Interest” star Jim Caviezel could provide sufficient marquee allure for the pic to attract viewers in homescreen venues.
Caviezel is well cast as Ward Allen, a boisterous and grandiloquent fellow who rejects the rank and privileges that normally would be his as the Oxford-educated scion of a well-to-do family, and embraces the free and unfettered life of a professional duck hunter in the waterways surrounding Savannah. With the help of friend and fellow hunter Christmas Moultie (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ex-slave whom Allen never treats as anything less than an equal, he provides a steady supply of fresh kills to loyal customers.
Trouble is, Allen’s chronic disregard for laws establishing bag limits on waterfowl lead to repeated clashes with the local constabulary, and routine appearances before a sympathetic but not endlessly patient judge (Hal Holbrook). Even his relationship with the strong-willed Lucy (Jaimie Alexander), who defies her high-society father (Sam Shepard) to marry Allen, does little to temper his iconoclastically independent spirit.
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Allen’s behavior is the stuff of local legend, a fact underscored by the framing device employed in the episodic screenplay co-written by Kenneth F. Carter and director Annette Haywood-Carter. Based on true-life events recounted in the book “Ward Allen: Savannah River Market Hunter” by John “Jack” Eugene Cay Jr., who hunted during his childhood with the real Christmas Moultie, the pic is loosely structured as flashbacks, many of them triggered by conversations in the 1950s between the adult Cay (Bradley Whitford) and the 95-year-old Christmas.
Time and again, “Savannah” strives for the flavor of tall tales admiringly retold. In this regard, it is most amusing as it details a quarrel between Alan and Lucy that climaxes with his shooting the eyes of her portrait in their parlor.
Not surprisingly, this altercation leads to Alan’s standing before the judge once again, facing charges filed by Lucy. To his credit, Alan mounts a novel defense: If he really were drunk, as Lucy claims, he couldn’t possibly have aimed accurately enough to hit his targets. The judge acknowledges the logic of this claim — but decides it would be a good idea to give Alan a 10-day sentence anyway, to give Lucy a chance to cool down.
Here and elsewhere, Caviezel hits the right note of stylized self-dramatization without venturing too far over the top. If the character never really achieves full-blown larger-than-life status, it’s less Caviezel’s fault than a shortcoming of the pic itself. Alan is meant to come across as a hard-drinking, Shakespeare-quoting and irresistibly charming cavalier, one who feels at one with nature and apart from polite society, but his robust and roisterous charisma too often is announced rather than adequately dramatized.
Despite some unconvincing aging makeup in the ‘50s-set scenes, Ejiofor neatly balances wit and dignity in a largely persuasive performance, while the other supporting players do their considerable best to flesh out thinly written roles. Credit helmer Haywood-Carter with making a smooth transition as the pic’s tone gradually darkens into melancholy as the second half progresses. Michael J. Ozier’s handsome lensing is a plus throughout.