Berlin 09 Review: In the Electric Mist

A week into the Berlinale and the general critical response ranges from “meh” to bloody awful. I’m more in the so-so camp, having seen a few films that spoke to me in certain ways, but not having seen anything that blows me away. Nothing like The Counterfeiters from 2007 or Hallam Foe from the same year or Offside, from 2006. So far nothing makes me say “Wow!”
Bertrand Tavernier’s In the Electric Mist suffers from a number of maladies which combine to turn a potentially gripping murder cum supernatural thriller into a slightly muddled minor disappointment, albeit one with enough acting, direction and meaty plot to make it an interesting and worthwhile disappointment with much of that let down coming in the form of a rather unsatisfying reveal of the killer.
The film centers around Tommy Lee Jones, who is treading familiar territory as Dave Robicheaux a hard boiled police lieutenant in New Iberia Parish, Louisiana. Jones has a strong moral core, a laconic disposition and a troubled past (this time it’s alcoholism) and Jones could play this role in his sleep but to his credit, Jones rarely phones in a performance and this one is no difference. He’s compelling to watch for the duration.
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Jones is joined by a supporting cast of Peter Sarsgaard, John Goodman, Mary Steenburgen, Kelly MacDonald, Justina Machado, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Levon Helm, Buddy Guy, James Gammon and Ned Beatty who mostly than hold their own, except for Guy, who’s stiffness may result more from having a director whose first language isn’t English. Then again, he may just not be a very good actor. Helm acquits himself better as the second of the two musicians in the cast. Then again, he has a significantly longer list of credits.
Jones’ Robicheaux is dealing with a lot of shit, to be honest, including a drunk driving movie star (an excellent Sarsgaard) a potential serial killer who is leaving chopped up hookers around the area, a major motion picture shooting in the area with a mobster cum investor from his past (Goodman) and a 40 year-old murder that happens to involve him directly.
Reportedly the film was taken away from Tavernier after a 2007 shoot and exists in two versions. The 117 minute Berlinale version and a 102 minute “producer’s cut” set to be released in the US on DVD next month. According to Variety’s Leslie Felperin, the shorter cut while speedier in its pace, is “less-coherent.”
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Goodman is good as well, but really, wasn’t there anyone on set to coach him on his accent? As a born and raised resident of Louisiana, he sounds more like the swamps of New Jersey than the bayous of Iberia Parish. That said, he was reasonably menacing as bad guy Julie ‘Baby Feet’ Balboni, a former schoolmate of Robicheaux’s, gone very bad.
My real joy in this film was watching Mary Steenburgen who is still rocking that sexy Southern charm mixed with a no-nonsense attitude that’s made her a joy to watch for so long and I will confess right now to having a pretty big crush. As the main calming force in Robicheaux’s life, Steenburgen’s Bootsie balances out Dave’s rather single-minded pursuit of justice in favor of his slowing down a little and enjoying his family, which includes a young daughter, Alafair (who Dave improbably plucked from a pane crash and adopted) her pet raccoon and Batist [sic.] (Walter Breaux), Dave’s partner in a bait shop. It’s a nice life and after people start taking shots at Dave (resulting in the death of a supporting innocent) you can certainly see her point. There’s a touching scene involving the two on a dock involving Dave’s ruminations on the possible consciousness of a latex fishing lure that all but made me want to drop everything and move to the country.
The thing is, all of that plus the murder mystery would be enough, but Mist throws in a few more ingredients into the gumbo, including ghosts of the Civil War, Katrina relief money scams, New Orleans pimps and LSD-laced drinks. What could have been a solid, if slightly unconventional thriller (Helm as the ghost of a Civil War general, anyone?) is over loaded with too many plot threads but still, there’s enough there to warrant release of the full director’s cut, stateside. At the end it’s not a bad film, just a somewhat overloaded and messy one. Having not seen the US-cut, I’ll leave you with more thoughts of the always good Felperin of Variety:

The U.S.-only version of the pic, incidentally, pares back so much of the backstory, that ends are left lying loose everywhere. Tavernier’s preferred version is both more cohesive and thought-provoking, but dawdles getting to the point. Both versions, however, are essentially flawed by the fact that killer’s revelation feels deeply underwhelming. At least the Tavernier version eschews the tacky summing up and oo!-spooky last shot mini twist that makes the U.S.-only version play like a made-for-TV movie.

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