In the Electric Mist seems to be cursed, seemingly fated to get short shrift. First, there's the matter of its title: the James Lee Burke book on which it was based is actually called In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, but perhaps the filmmakers thought audiences would think it a Civil War drama, which it most certainly isn't. Then there's the matter of the film's theatrical and home video release. It's slated for a brief theatrical run starting on February 20, 2009, with various home formats appearing a mere two weeks later, on March 3. That doesn't augur well for Ithaca Pictures' faith in the project to garner decent reviews and get decent theatrical audiences. But most importantly is the film itself, and there the at times strangely undeveloped plot points and character motivations may leave mystery fans frustrated and scratching their heads. And yet despite this all, Electric Mist is redolent with atmosphere, superbly played by Tommy Lee Jones (as Burke's iconic policeman Dave Robicheaux) and a fantastic supporting cast, and has as its core the same sort of gritty true south ambience that colored films as disparate as In the Heat of the Night and The Big Easy.
Electric Mist follows recovering alcoholic Robicheaux, a weathered detective who works the backwater small parishes outside of New Orleans, as he attempts to track down what is probably a serial killer, a man who preys on prostitutes and other lower class females, and not only kills them, but vivisects them. Playing out against these grisly murders are Robicheaux's memories of a 1965 slaying of a black man in a swamp, a killing Robicheaux witnessed, unbeknownst to the people who shot the runaway convict. There's also a film crew in town, funded by longtime Robicheaux acquaintance and nemesis, Baby Feet Balboni (John Goodman), bringing Robicheaux into contact with the film's frequently drunk star, Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard), who just happens to have stumbled on the corpse of the dead black man from 40 years previous while filming a pickup scene in a Louisiana bog. The film dips into fantasy and surrealism when Robicheaux starts getting visits from a Civil War General (hence the book's original title), who offers the beleaguered policeman advice on things practical and spiritual.
That's obviously a heady brew for any film to completely capitalize on, so it's perhaps not surprising that Electric Mist leaves several plot points dangling by film's end, and never fully resolves some character issues with the host of colorful supporting folk who traipse in and out of the storyline. While the visions of General Bell (legendary musician Levon Helm, who does absolutely incredible work here) are initially explained as being the result of some contraband LSD finding its way into one of Robicheaux's sodas, the subsequent interactions with the ghost are too brief, and then too cursorily explained away as "imagination," to ultimately have the impact they were evidently intended to. Similarly, the ultimate bad guy's motive for slicing and dicing his way through a series of unfortunate women is never fully explicated, other than that the guy is obviously disturbed and evidently quite the sadist.
One particularly strange point that is never explained is a nighttime shootout when Robicheaux thinks he's being fired on (we see gunshots) and ends up believing, for a while at least, that he's killed an unarmed prostitute who may have been able to give him evidence. While it quickly becomes clear that Robicheaux didn't kill her, the gunshots are never explained.
It will probably be no surprise to mystery buffs when the 1965 killing and the spree of prostitute murders are ultimately linked, but the through line is again underdeveloped and ultimately unsatisfactory. And the final "reveal," as Robicheaux's daughter looks at Civil War photographs, may make some viewers think they've stumbled into an alternate version of The Shining.
If you can deal with these and several other ambiguities and outright failures to fully tie up various loose ends, there's an awful lot to like about Electric Mist. Jones is stupendous in this role, bringing a world-weary presence that unexpectedly erupts into absolutely breathtaking (literally--you'll gasp) violence throughout the film. This is a ferocious portrait of a character who at his core is a decent, honorable man, but who isn't above "finding" evidence if it helps convict the right guy, not to mention planting a gun on the culprit once he's shot to smithereens. Goodman is similarly exceptional in a brief role that nonetheless has several great moments of interchange with Jones' character. Mary Steenburgen as Mrs. Robicheaux brings a warmth and down home loveliness to a basically accessory role. Ned Beatty as one of the film's funders does his patented slimy, smarmy southern schtick with élan. Buddy Guy, who performs briefly in a party scene, also has a nice cameo as an informant who is only too aware of what it means to be a black man in Louisiana.
Two supporting performances stand out, however, and they are Sarsgaard as the tipsy film star and Kelly Macdonald as his girlfriend. Sarsgaard brings a nice balance to a pampered brat character who is also struggling with his inner demons (ones that obviously mirror Robicheaux's status as a recovering addict). Macdonald will be a revelation to anyone who's seen her is such fare as Gosford Park or State of Play. First of all, she does a spot on "American" accent, which I guess should be no surprise, but she also brings an immediate sense of care and protectiveness to her character, a woman who has to make sure Elrod doesn't injure himself or others due to his drinking problem.
Mist also benefits from a palpable feel for small town Louisiana, a region attempting to escape its less than stellar civil rights history while also recovering from such natural disasters as Katrina (which plays into the story, however tangentially). Burke's elegant language also makes its way into the voiceover, giving an unusually literary air to the proceedings, and offering Jones especially some wonderful soliloquoys and dialogue. Not surprisingly, the soundtrack is full of fanstastic Cajun tunes that play under the creepy storyline like a sort of twisted counterpoint.
Director Bertrand Tavernier has incredible visual flair throughout the film, framing several scenes with considerable panache. A long tracking shot up behind Jones praying in a church beautifully sweeps around the actor, finally revealing Helm as the ghost of Bell sitting in a pew on the opposite side of the sanctuary. In fact Mist features some of the most expressively fluid camerawork in any recent thriller, and the visual presentation is always compelling, supporting the story while never being simply showy.
I frequently bemoan films that drag on for too long and fail to support their bloated productions. In the Electric Mist is actually the flip side of that equation: it would have benefited from at least a few more minutes of running time, to more fully explain some of the loose threads of the main mystery plot and especially to tie in Robicheaux's visions of a long dead Confederate General with his investigations. As it is, Mist is a fitfully compelling film that may leave a lot of audience members feeling like they got the short shrift.
The shrifting (is that a word? well, it should be) continues with Image's really lackluster transfer. The AVC 2.35:1 image could have been fantastic, what with the lovely (and menacing) Louisiana locations. Instead we get a virtual panoply of digital artifacts, including moire patterns on Jones' herringbone suit jackets, some of the most prevalent edge enhancement I've seen recently (and EE typically doesn't drive me as crazy as it does some reviewers), and a lot of line shimmer and flashing on heavily forested scenes. It's a real shame, because underneath all of that noise is a sharp image with impeccable well saturated color.
Luckily the DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix is considerably better, though I was not really left with a totally immersive experience. There are some great moments, though, notably when various people boat through the swampland, with the roar of the big engines nicely moving from channel to channel. Dialogue is front heavy, but always clear and precise, and the underscore is well balanced, occasionally seeping into the surround channels. A good, if not exceptional, soundtrack. Also available is a standard DD 5.1 mix, which frankly didn't sound like too much of a dropoff from the DTS. English and Spanish subtitles are available.
Only the theatrical trailer is offered.
In the Electric Mist has the makings of an exceptional mystery thriller and character study. Unfortunately what's here just doesn't fully realize that potential, and it's hindered by a totally lackluster BD transfer. All of that said, there's still a lot to enjoy here, especially Jones' commanding performance. The film is certainly worth an evening of your time, so I recommend you Rent It.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet