Dir: Bertrand Tavernier. US-France. 2009. 117mins.


A hard-boiled labour of love runs aground for devoted American crime aficionado Bertrand Tavernier, making his first US-shot feature with an adaptation of one of James Lee Burke’s Louisiana-set thrillers. Tavernier has shown his skill with American noir fiction before, in his acclaimed Jim Thompson adaptation Clean Slate (1981). But, while he enthusiastically engages with the bayou world of Burke’s detective Dave Robicheaux, In The Electric Mist proves a sluggish and confusing attempt to fuse the crime investigation with hallucinatory elements of supernatural fantasy.

Due for straight-to-DVD release in the US in March in a shorter, 102-minute ‘producer’s cut’, this English-language feature is set to go out everywhere else in this longer version, where it is unlikely to equal the success of other recent genre exercises (Gone Baby Gone, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead) that similarly revived the downbeat mood of the 70s US thriller wave. The film will find its warmest reception at festivals with a devoted crime slant.

Tavernier started shooting the film in New Orleans in 2007, its completion affected by post-production disagreements. The version shown in Berlin competition certainly suggests editing indecison, featuring an elliptical narrative and an uneasy first-person voice-over from Tommy Lee Jones.

Set in New Iberia, Louisiana, the story follows police lieutenant Robicheaux - Burke’s recurrent hero - as he follows up the vicious killing of a young prostitute. Robicheaux intuits that the dead woman may have had links with mobster turned film producer Julie ‘Babyfeet’ Balboni (Goodman), his old schoolmate and sparring partner. The investigation is complicated by the discovery of another, older corpse, found by alcoholic film star Elrod T Sykes (Sarsgaard), in the area shooting a film. In the course of his investigation, Robicheaux also encounters - or rather, apparently, hallucinates, after ingesting an LSD-spiked drink -a long-dead Confederate general (Helm), camped out in the woods with his ghostly platoon.

The integration of the film’s eerie dream elements doesn’t quite come off, the General’s existence established too late in the day to persuade us to take it on its own terms. Neither is Robicheaux himself sufficiently established as a character beyond the usual cranky-as-a-coot Tommy Lee Jones template, although the film offers occasional oddball glimpses of his off-duty rural existence with girlfriend Bootsie (Steenburgen), adoptive daughter and pet raccoon.

The film is better at offering a panorama of downhome and low-life bayou society, with a strong supporting cast selected for their windblown, characterful qualities: notably Pruitt Taylor Vince, the dependable Ned Beatty and especially Levon Helm, former drummer with The Band, who brings an other-worldly seasoned dignity to the role of the dead General. Blues legend Buddy Guy and writer-director John Sayles also log in game cameos. Sarsgaard and Kelly Macdonald, as Elrod’s actress girlfriend, seem more like confused backpackers than big-shot movie stars in trouble.

Sporadic action scenes are surprisingly brutal - uncomfortably so, since it’s hero Robicheaux who doles out the violence. But major plot turns are often undermined by cursory editing: notably, one character’s sudden surprise killing is totally thrown away.

The film’s weakest link is Tommy Lee Jones, whose rueful monolith of a persona is coming to seem decidedly shopworn: mostly, Jones seems to go through the motions with sour fatigue, rather than convey the angry, driven world-weariness attributed to Robicheaux.

Tavernier makes every attempt to evoke a real rather than a genre Louisiana, with many explicit references made to Hurricane Katrina and its effects. The film is an honest attempt to capture the bitter, downbeat tone of 1970s thrillers of the Night Moves school - with perhaps a dash of Peckinpah - but most of it all, it resembles Robert Altman’s tangled, claustrophobic take on John Grisham’s The Gingerbread Man.

Production companies
Ithaca Films
Little Bear

International sales
TFI International
(33) 1 41 41 21 68

Michael Fitzgerald
Frederic Bourboulon

Jerzy Kromolowski
Mary Olson-Kromolowski
Based on James Lee Burke’s novel In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead

Bruno de Keyzer

Production design
Meredith Boswell

Marco Beltrami

Thierry Derocles
Roberto Silvi
Larry Madaras

Main cast
Tommy Lee Jones
John Goodman
Peter Sarsgaard
Ned Beatty
Levon Helm
Mary Steenburgen