Well-executed but dramatically foggy, contempo film noir “In the Electric Mist,” helmer Bertrand Tavernier’s first U.S. production, reps a moderate disappointment. Based on a novel by James Lee Burke, and featuring a laconic perf by Tommy Lee Jones as a Louisiana cop investigating a serial killer, pic blends flavors from Tavernier’s own eclectic filmography of policiers, social-issues fare and even films about filmmaking, but the whole gumbo lacks real zing. “International” version shown in Berlin is likely to have spindly legs theatrically offshore, while a shorter, blander version goes straight to ancillary Stateside this March.
The product of a reportedly troubled shoot in 2007, pic now exists in two versions: a richer but more sluggish director’s edit, running 117 minutes and shown at the Berlinale, will be screened theatrically everywhere in the world apart from the U.S. (Pic has reputedly already sold to some major territories.) Meanwhile, a producer’s cut, running a brisker but less-coherent 102 minutes, will be released straight to DVD by Image Entertainment on March 3 in North America.
The tone of each version is quite different, but the essential set-up is the same in both. Set in and around New Iberia, La., screenplay credited to Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski updates crime writer James Lee Burke’s original novel “In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead,” written in 1993, to the a post-Katrina present-day. As the community gets on with rebuilding homes and the Mafia gets fatter off post-catastrophe corruption, it’s still business as usual for detective Dave Robicheaux (Tommy Lee Jones), a recovering alcoholic given to a little light rule bending and violence when necessary.
Initially, Robicheaux starts out investigating two seemingly unconnected murders. The first corpse is that of Cherry LeBlanc, a young prostitute whose body was horrifically mangled by her killer. Meanwhile, a film being shot in the region leads to the discovery in the bayou of Dewitt Prejean’s skeleton, covered in chains. A black man who was mysteriously busted out of jail in 1965, Prejean was shot by two unknown men, a murder that just happened to be witnessed by Robicheaux himself when he was a teenager in an unnecessary plot contrivance.
As more newly murdered young women start bobbing up in the swamp and Robicheaux starts interviewing old guys for the Prejean case who remember the bad old days, it soon becomes apparent all the murders are somehow connected. Prominent suspects include local crime kingpin Julie “Babyfeet” Balboni (John Goodman, having fun), scion of industry Twinky Lemoyne (Ned Beatty, underused) and a crowded cast of corrupt cops, ex-cops, and assorted low-lifes.
An extensive subplot concerns Robicheaux’s growing friendship with dipsomaniac movie star Elrod T. Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard, good but miscast) and his long-suffering starlet g.f. Kelly (Kelly MacDonald). Both Sykes and Robicheaux have had maybe-supernatural, maybe-delusional visions of Civil-War General John Bell Hood (Levon Helm). Over pic’s course, Hood pops up periodically to offer Robicheaux advice about his investigations, and to rep a symbol of how the past haunts the present.
Tavernier attempts to compress an admirable quantity of broader themes into what might seem superficially to be just another police procedural that hinges on that most hackneyed of cop-movie devices, the serial killer. There’s implicit political critique of the handling of the post-Katrina recovery tied up in Robicheaux’s partner Bootsie’s (a sparky and still sexy Mary Steenburgen) volunteer efforts to rebuild houses for the poor and the shots of devastated homes. The legacy of centuries of racial tensions, from the days of slavery up to the 1960s, hangs like a thin miasma over the foreground story. Pic even gets in some sly digs at corruption in the film business, touching on union issues and dirty money.
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.
Literally emphasizing the bigger picture through more extensive use of long shots than one would would expect in an average Hollywood movie, Tavernier’s version feels subtly European in flavor. Still, one would have expected more fireworks from the collision between the helmer’s distinctly French sensibilities with this quintessentially American setting for such noirish material, especially given fact that Tavernier, a one-time critic, has been riffing on classic Hollywood cinema throughout his career.
Jones does typically sturdy work here, albeit with a part he’s perhaps played with minor variations one too many times before. Legendary guitarist Buddy Guy turns in a stiff perf in a key role. Craft contributions are all pro. Lensing by Bruno de Keyzer in Tavernier’s beloved ‘Scope has a nicely eerie shimmer, while score by Marco Beltrami adds sinister and memorable spice to the mix that resonates with soundtrack’s well chosen Cajun tunes.