Investigation between two worlds
by Fabien Lemercier
- A captivating thriller by a European director who skilfully masters the conventions of the US detective film to create a subtle and brilliantly acted work
Having always been fascinated by US cinema, seasoned French director Bertrand Tavernier crossed the Atlantic with his production company Little Bear to pitch his camera in the heart of Louisiana and make a film adaptation of James Lee Burke’s dark detective novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead.
Unveiled in competition at the latest Berlin International Film Festival, this cinematic immersion in the Louisiana Bayou lives up to all its promises: beneath the appearance of a classic detective film, In the Electric Mist [+see also:
interview: Bertrand Tavernier
film profile] proves to be a work with a subtle atmosphere.
Subtly combining explosive elements that touch on the past and recent history of the southern United States, from financial mafia corruption to racist crimes, from widespread prostitution to the destruction of hurricane Katrina and strange alcoholic forays into the irrational, the French director’s English-language feature testifies to a deep understanding of the pernicious atmosphere that reigns over Louisiana.
Plunging into the depths of humanity, the film exploits the outstanding talent of its lead actor, Tommy Lee Jones, who perfectly renders the contradictions of Detective Dave Robicheaux. Rather unorthodox in his methods, the latter flirts with the boundaries of evil in his fight for good ("Greedy and wicked men are destroying the world into which you were born").
Opening with the discovery of the body of a young woman murdered by an apparent serial killer, the film, co-written by Mary Olson and Jerzy Kromolowski, traces the almost single-handed investigation by the laconic and catholic Robicheaux, a former alcoholic who lives in the Bayou with his wife and adoptive daughter. Suspecting the involvement of his former school friend, Julie "Baby Feet" Balboni (John Goodman) – a mafioso who has turned his attentions to the lucrative post-Katrina reconstruction projects and invested in a film being shot in the area – Robicheaux travels the length and breadth of the region in search of clues.
He crosses paths with film star Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard), who leads him to the 40-year-old corpse of a chained-up black man buried in the marshes of the Indian reservation. The two parallel murder investigations end up overlapping while an element of strangeness emerges in the form of ghosts from the past and hallucinations involving Confederate Army soldiers.
Following the conventions of a fast-paced, action-packed US genre film, Tavernier introduces a hyper-realist approach that gives great substance to the brilliantly acted characters (the cast also includes bluesman Buddy Guy) and the deadly setting marked by beauty and decadence. DoP Bruno De Keyzer’s remarkable work on the light and Marco Beltrami’s score contribute to this bewitching and disturbing atmosphere.
With its rather desperate observation on human depravity motivated by the attraction of money, In the Electric Mist analyses in an impressionistic way the soul’s eternal struggle against its darker side, a universal battle that a talented European director such as Tavernier can skilfully transpose anywhere on the planet in any form, including a detective film.
(Translated from French)