Wednesday, May 13, 2015

In the Electric Mist (2009)

(This short write-up is based on the shorter US cut of the film. I haven’t seen the longer European one, so I can’t possibly comment on the differences between the two versions.)

Former New Orleans, now rural Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux (Tommy Lee Jones) is drawn into two separate cases: a serial killing of prostitutes, and the discovery of the body of a murdered African American who must have died during the 60s in what looks a lot like a lynching. In both cases, Dave searches and ponders and might just find some hints pointing him towards the truth of the matters. Somebody seems to think so, at least, because even before the hints and the hunches Dave follows can cohere into a concrete picture, he finds himself first drugged with LSD that induces a series of visions of talks with a very dead confederate General (Levon Helm), and later implicated in a wrongful shooting. Even worse things are still to come.

As members of various secret societies all around the world know, every major (or at least somewhat bigger) French director is promised by law the right to make at least one US film, preferably some kind of genre movie. That film, the US audience will then ignore while a handful of - predominantly French – critics  will praise it to the high heavens. If you have my blessed taste, you’ll probably rather want to agree with the latter than the former. In the case of Bertrand Tavernier’s adaptation of James Lee Burke’s sixth Dave Robicheaux crime novel, agreeing with the French is not a particular difficult proposition to me, for it is a pretty brilliant mystery, though one that will need very specific sensibilities to appreciate, exactly the kind of sensibilities that tend to not make a film much of a hit with a larger audience.

For In the Electric Mist is a film that trusts its audience to work with it, and persevere with it, to accept its calm, unhurried yet involved tone as the mirror of the way its central character tries to approach the world, to understand the film’s crime plot without it ever explaining anything in a detailed way. After all, we have experienced what Dave experienced, we witness his reactions to it, we see the conclusions he draws, so – in Tavernier’s mind as well as in mine – there’s no need to have the characters then explicitly tell us what’s going on.

For me, this approach to crime film and mystery seems pretty natural, but going by various online reactions I’ve seen, it’s also one quite a few people just seem to loathe, so what I think is one of In the Electric Mist’s greatest strengths to them make it nigh unwatchable and certainly impenetrable. It certainly isn’t an easy film to grasp in all details, with its philosophical approach to the world, and it’s ambiguous way to present its characters. In particular the way Tavernier never shows Dave’s emotional turmoil all that directly or dramatically beyond through the sheer, quietly sad presence of Tommy Lee Jones (who gives another wonderful performance in a late career full of these performances) might not be too easy to relate to for everyone, though I felt it carries quite an emotional heft more outward emotional explosions might not have produced. And it’s not as if Dave doesn’t get violent and does some morally highly doubtful things, he just does them in ways lacking outward signs of melodrama. This is of course quite fitting for a character who keeps much of what is going on inside him closed up deep inside, and finds a kind of philosophical clarity in talks with the vision/hallucination/ghost of a dead confederate general.

Despite the film’s basically heady and earnest nature, Tavernier does include some lighter elements too, so there are the not always so tiny roles for musicians like Levon Helm and Buddy Guy, or great US independent director and writer John Sayles (of course playing a director), as well as a lot of little strange details – particularly surrounding John Goodman’s mafioso Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni – that break up things a little without breaking them. I’m actually somewhat tempted to call the film’s tone magical realist – at least, the way the naturalistic, the poetic and the philosophical meet one another here seems to come from a kindred direction to the genre, as does our dead confederate general.

Speaking of poetry, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bruno de Keyzer’s cinematography, the way he and Tavernier shoot beautiful landscape after beautiful (and possibly meaningful) landscape without ever overindulging in it so it would get in the way of their movie. There’s a love on display here, for a place and its people, that doesn’t come as a complete surprise from Tavernier, whose interest in the American South goes back quite some time, yet which can’t be taken for granted either. Even though I’m sure the South of In the Electric Mist isn’t a documentarian depiction (though how could I know from Germany?), in the film it’s as real and as unreal as any place you might inhabit, and what more could I ask of a movie to create?

No comments: