Categories: 2009 Berlin Film Festival
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).
When 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 and will go directly to DVD in the U.S. next month. In comparing the two edits, Variety 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."
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.
Elsewhere, 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 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.