Not many films in the 60 years since Robert Flaherty's immortal Louisiana Story have evoked the atmosphere of the Bayou State as strongly as Bertrand Tavernier's In the Electric Mist,
a movie that doesn't seem to have been filmed so much as distilled, on
a creaking porch beset by mosquitos and summer heat, with the rumble of
a gathering storm in the distance. Adapted from the novel by James Lee
Burke, the film stars Tommy Lee Jones as Burke's popular detective
character, Dave Robichaux, here investigating the murder of one Cherry
LeBlanc, a "fatally beautiful" 19-year-old prostitute whose mutilated
corpse washes up on shore in the film's opening scene. Not long after
that, another body -- this one belonging to a lynched black man dead
and gone some 40 years -- surfaces deep in the swamp, loosed by
Hurricane Katrina's churning tide.
Since it was first announced, In the Electric Mist has
sounded like an ideal project for Tavernier, combining two of the
veteran French filmmaker's great passions: the American South
(previously explored in his 1985 documentary, Mississippi Blues) and American pulp fiction (the basis for 1981's Oscar-nominated Coup de torchon, which transposed Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280 to French colonial Africa). But it's been a long road to Berlin for In the Electric Mist, which was shot on location in 2007 only to become entangled in post-production disagreements between Tavernier and the film's American producer, Michael Fitzgerald (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada).
the dust finally settled, two different versions of the movie emerged
-- an "international" cut prepared by Tavernier, which screened here in
Berlin and will be released in most countries around the world, and an
"American" cut supervised by Fitzgerald that runs 15 minutes shorter
critic Leslie Felperin deemed the American version "brisker but
less-coherent" with "tacky summing up and [an] oo!-spooky last shot
mini twist that makes [it] play like a made-for-TV movie."
Having seen only Tavernier's version, I can say that it's unfortunate
American audiences may never get a chance to experience this superior
detective yarn on the big screen, in the form its director intended.
Unfortunate, but by no means surprising. Indeed, where the default
Hollywood position would have been to strip-mine Burke's source
material for its narrative chassis while junking all its atmospheric
touches, tertiary supporting characters and curlicue digressions,
Tavernier (working from a script credited to the husband-and-wife team
of Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski) does exactly the
opposite. Much like Burke himself on the page, he plays up the bass line at
the expense of the melody, showing markedly less interest in the
identity of the killer(s) than in a long and winding history of
Southern injustice that stretches from Jim Crow to George W. Bush. Long
ago, Robichaux says in the lyrical voice-over that opens the film,
people placed heavy stones on the graves of the dead so as to weigh
down the souls of the departed. But in Burke and Tavernier's world,
every time a storm blows through, those stones become displaced, and
restless spirits take to wandering the bayou.
This is the
Burke adaptation fans of the author deserved, but were sorely denied by
the 1996 film version of another Robichaux novel, Heaven's Prisoners,
with an altogether unconvincing Alec Baldwin in the lead. Jones, by
contrast, slips effortlessly into the character's skin -- a bit too
effortlessly, some might argue, given the actor's history of playing
no-nonsense lawmen. But pay close attention to the jittery impatience
in Dave Robichaux's voice, his clumsiness of gesture, the faint
uncertainty in his recovering alcoholic's eyes, and you will see a
character many jurisdictions removed from The Fugitive's cocksure Marshal Samuel Gerard and No Country For Old Men's wizened and weary Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.
If In the Electric Mist
is finally less than completely satisfying as a murder mystery, as a
piece of cultural anthropology it is never less than deeply absorbing.
History and myth freely intermingle with the present, particularly in
the case of what may be the movie's cleverest conceit -- a Civil
War-era film within the film, starring a hell-raising Hollywood actor
(a highly amusing Peter Sarsgaard) and a cast of hundreds, although the
Confederate General (Levon Helm) Robichaux keeps encountering in the
nighttime fog seems more than a mere costumed extra.
Tavernier's movie runs thick with gut-bucket jazz and blues, regional
accents so foreign that the film's Berlin press screenings carried
English subtitles, and local fat cats with names like "Babyfeet"
Balboni (wonderfully oily John Goodman) and "Twinky" Lemoyne (Ned
Beatty) who add to the Chinatown-like air of pervasive
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corruption. One murder blends into another, and the only meaningful
punishment is meted out not by the hands of the law, but by those of
father time. Ultimately, "whodunit?" seems a question as unanswerable
as a Zen koan -- except, perhaps, in the producer's cut.