Monday, March 23, 2009

Swamp Noir: In the Electric Mist

In the Electric Mist
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Image Entertainment

While New Orleans might be the birthplace of jazz, there has always been plenty of blues going on in the rest of Louisiana. After all, it is delta country, where bluesmen like Robert Pete Williams and Lightnin’ Slim helped develop an appropriately swampy local sound. The bayou is also the stomping ground of James Lee Burke’s Detective Dave Robicheaux, who makes his second film appearance in Bertrand Tavernier’s In the Electric Mist (trailer here), now available on DVD.

Mist is Tavernier’s first dramatic feature shot in North America, but he seems to have an affinity for the region beyond the French language. The veteran film-maker directed Dexter Gordon to an Academy Award nomination in the classic jazz drama ‘Round Midnight and with Robert Parrish co-directed the documentary Mississippi Blues. Indeed, the sounds of the region are well represented in Mist, particularly in the figure of bluesman Sam “Hogman” Patin, played by the true blues legend Buddy Guy, long a fixture of the Chicago Blues scene, but born in Lettsworth, LA.

Tommy Lee Jones specializes in playing the world-weariness Robicheaux will soon feel in Mist. A recovering alcoholic, Robicheaux has a loving wife and young daughter, but his professional life is about to get ugly, and even tragic. While frustrated by the lack of leads in the case of a savagely murdered prostitute, Robicheaux is tipped off to the location of a decades-old body of an African American man in the swamp. The disinterested cops in the neighboring parish simply dismiss it as a matter of extra paper-work, but the circumstances of the crime scene strike a chord with Robicheaux. As he pursues both cases, officially and unofficially, he begins to suspect a connection between them, focusing his attention on “Babyfeet” Balboni, a local mobster turned Hollywood moneyman.

It is surprising Mist had such scant American theatrical distribution after its premiere at the Berlinale Film Festival, considering it top-shelf cast. Jones is perfectly cast as the craggy Cajun. John Goodman chews the scenery with relish as Balboni, and Mary Steenburgen does what she can in the thankless role of Robicheaux’s understanding wife, Bootsie. Also, look out for indy filmmaker John Sayles in a small role as a director making a Civil War film in the parish, which he pretentiously intends to be an allegory for Iraq.

As Patin, Guy shows impressive screen-presence, probably beating Jones at his own game of understated intensity in their scenes together. He also has some cool musical numbers with Nathan Williams and the Zydeco Cha Chas, nicely integrating the earthy goodtime sounds of Louisiana with the dramatic story.

While the relatively routine crime story of Mist might harbor few surprises, the sheer volume of suffering inflicted on its protagonist sets it a measure apart from other mystery fare. It is a decidedly dark film noir, deeply steeped in the Bayou atmosphere. That music and ambiance, along with the perfectly pitched performances of Jones, Guy, and Goodman make Mist quite an entertaining little thriller.