Film Review: In the Electric Mist

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Berlin International Film Festival -- Competition
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BERLIN -- The venerable French auteur Bertrand Tavernier has given us in "In the Electric Mist," a film of many excellent parts, but unfortunately they don't add up to a satisfying whole. He's actually made something on the order of three or four different films here, each vying for our scattered attention, and each of which, on its own, probably could have been reasonably entertaining.

Despite the big-name cast, the commercial prospects of this always watchable film nevertheless look doubtful. Word is that the film will go straight to video in the U.S. with a version shortened by 15 minutes.

Tommy Lee Jones does his usual wonderful job of playing Tommy Lee Jones, that is, a contemplative but alcoholic and violent small-town sheriff who beats people up when he has to, between bouts of philosophical rumination rendered in poetic voiceover.

He's investigating a string of brutal murders of young women in his Louisiana parish while jousting with a former classmate named Julie Balboni (John Goodman), who's returned to the parish in order to make a movie and do as much drinking, coke-snorting and whoring as possible. Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard) also shows up as a drunken movie star, along with Kelly Drummond (Kelly Macdonald) as his feckless TV star girlfriend and John Sayles in a cute cameo as the film's director.

Like fellow French auteur Jean Renoir before him, Tavernier is obviously fascinated by the look, the sounds, the myths and the people of the American South. This deep affection is by far the most winning aspect of the film, and the most original. In fact, the dialogue spoken by both blacks and Cajun whites is so authentic that subtitles in simplified English have been appended to the version that screened in the Berlinale. The blues and other forms of local music keep the soundtrack perking as well.

Had Tavernier stuck to his original police procedural, punctuated with a generous helping of colorful local lore, "In the Electric Mist" could have been a completely satisfying entertainment along the lines of "No Country for Old Men." Alas, he makes the Jones character just a little too philosophical (that is, a little too French) to keep him believable. Whatever shred of credibility he retains is blown to smithereens when he starts talking to and consorting with the ghost of a Confederate general who's been dead for more than a century. Goodman's character is played so over-the-top (his nickname is Babyfoots) that he seems like a refugee from an earlier Coen Brothers film, and gives the film an ungainly and perhaps unintentional surrealist spin. The unfunny subplot that Sarsgaard is awkwardly involved in seems completely extraneous to everything else and wouldn't be missed for a moment were it snipped.

Worst of all, the film's tone is all jumbled. We are made to be horrified by all the deaths, which are recounted in excruciatingly gruesome detail, then we're treated to a large section of corn-pone comedy and boys-will-be-boys shenanigans. At that point, Tavernier suddenly seems to remember that he and Tommy Lee Jones have got all these dead girls on their hands that they have to get back to -- and make us care about them to boot.

Production: Ithaca Films, Little Bear Prods
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, John Goodman, Peter Sarsgaard, Mary Steenburgen, Kelly Macdonald, Rosie Gomez
Director: Bertrand Tavernier
Screenwriters: Jerzy Kromolowski, Mary Olson-Kromolowski
Producer: Michael Fitzgerald, Frederic Bourboulon
Executive producer: Gulnara Sarsenova, Penelope Glass
Director of photography: Bruno de Keyser
Production designer: Merideth Boswell
Music: Marco Beltrami
Costume designer: Kathy Kiatta
Editor: Thierry Derocles, Roberto Silvi, Larry Madaras
Sales: TFI International

No rating, 117 minutes