In the Electric Mist
Synopsis: New Iberia, Louisiana. Detective Dave Robicheaux is on the hunt of a serial killer who preys on young women. Driving home from another gruesome crime scene, Dave meets glamorous Hollywood star Elrod Sykes. Sykes is in town shooting his new movie, with backing from local crime kingpin Baby Feet Balboni. He tells Dave he saw a body lying in a swamp ? the decomposed corpse of a black man in chains. The discovery brings memories hurtling out of Dave's past. He senses the two cases are linked. But as Dave gets closer to the murderer, the murderer gets closer to Dave's family?
Authenticity overcomes convoluted plot contrivances in this 2009 Berlinale favourite.
A by-the-numbers police procedural that benefits from the filmmaker’s vivid connection to the location, In The Electric Mist is French auteur Bertrand Tavernier’s first film in five years and his most straightforward narrative in… well, ages. The machinations of the plot are engaging and some mystical bayou superstition creates suspense, though one wonders what drew the 70 year-old Francophile and his equally aged leading man to spend all that time on such a tough shoot.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Dave Robicheaux, a grizzled Louisiana detective investigating the murder of a local hooker. Any misdoins’ on the Bayou and all eyes turn to underworld ‘heavy’, Julie ‘Babyfeet’ Balboni (John Goodman), the local crime lord with his finger in several pies, including prostitution. He also dabbles in film production, and is backing a film that is shooting in Robicheaux’s county. The movie’s leading man, Hollywood drunk Elrod Sykes (Peter Saarsgard), runs afoul of Robicheaux but wins him over with stories of ghostly Confederate soldiers on the swamp who have led him to the bones of a murdered black man, long since buried by the tidal surges of Hurricane Katrina.
As investigations intensify and close associates start dying, Robicheaux, his ring-in FBI partner Gomez (Justina Machado) and old police buddy Lou Girardi (Pruitt Taylor Vince), peel back the layers of the decades-old mystery to reveal the links to the murder of the wayward young girl.
It’s all rather convoluted and pretty unbelievable in parts, but Jones, Tavernier and his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer (this is their fifth film together), work hard to give every scene an authentic deep southern patina. Special kudos must be paid to casting directors Lisa Mae Fincannon and Jeanne McCarthy, who have excelled at finding convincing and compelling character actors from Louisiana and its surrounds, as well as such old-time greats as James Gammon, Ned Beatty, Levon Helm as the spectral General Hood and, in a small role as the film-within-a-film’s writer-director, writer-director John Sayles.
To the film’s detriment, such dedication to atmosphere is not enough to sustain a meandering murder-mystery plot, which is neither particularly exciting nor congruent with the psychological/supernatural elements. More joy is to be had in the film’s smaller moments as they unfold – Jones and Goodman going nose-to-nose in a top acting duel; enjoying Kelly McDonald as Saarsgard’s put-upon girlfriend; the emergence of Jones’ softer side when in the company of his wife (a lovely Mary Steenburgen); deciphering the impenetrable Southern accents.
The film was welcomed into competition at last year’s Berlinale, a Festival that has had a love affair with Tavernier since he walked away with two awards from three nominations in 1974 for L’horloger de saint-Paul (The Clockmaker). He’s garnered four more awards and five more nominations, including a Golden Bear nomination for In The Electric Mist. That the film has failed to impact upon any other Festival jury confirms that this is a good film from an accomplished director but one that is well down the list of his finest achievements.
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