French director Bertrand Tavernier is no stranger to cinematic genre adaptations. One of his most famous films, Coup de Torchon, took a seedy Jim Thompson novel and set it amongst French speakers in a run-down small town in Africa with spectacular results. For his latest, In the Electric Mist, Tavernier turns to contemporary crime writer James Lee Burke and his famous police detective Dave Robicheaux. Robicheaux is no stranger to the big screen either, having been played by Alec Baldwin in Heaven's Prisoners. I never saw that film, but I would wager that a young Alec Baldwin is light years away from an aging Tommy Lee Jones.
In the Electric Mist opens with Robicheaux informing us of his drinking problem and the ways he tests his temptation. Sitting in a bar, he orders a drink, one that he does not partake of. As the narrator, he asks us to trust him, but as viewers, we will never know for sure if he really refused the booze all on his own or if the murder he has been called to helped pull him away. A young girl has been found in the New Orleans swamp, and she's been cut up pretty bad. The deceased was once an underage hooker, and just how she connects to the next body Robicheaux uncovers is the mystery that In the Electric Mist will spend most of its running time unraveling. And since the entire film is from Dave's point of view (he's in every scene), we'll have as much reason to doubt his perspective and veracity as that opening scene suggested.
A movie crew has moved into New Orleans to inject some money into the community post-Katrina. The stars of the film are lovers Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kelly Drummond (Kelly MacDonald), and when Robicheaux pulls the perpetually pickled Elrod over for drunk driving, the actor offers the cop a deal: he will take Robicheaux to a dead body he found if Robicheaux will let him go. The body turns out to be the forty-year-old corpse of a black fugitive that Robicheaux saw gunned down as a teenager. As he notes, one hurricane covered up the body back in the 1960s, and the more recent attack of Hurricane Katrina unearthed it once again.
Now Robicheaux has two homicides weighing on his mind. He also sees visions of long-gone Confederate soldiers who emerge from the bayou fog to offer him guidance. Given Tommy Lee Jones' performance as the weary police officer who has seen it all and done it better and the old ghost's warning not to let the values of the past be dismantled by the criminal element of the present, In the Electric Mist will inevitably draw comparisons to No Country for Old Men. The two couldn't be further apart, however, as the script, which was mined from a novel whose full title is In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead, has more in common with classic hardboiled detective novels than it does Cormac McCarthy's blood-soaked masculinity. Writers Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski (The Pledge) aren't shy about violence, but they arrange their plot as a convoluted series of connected encounters rather than as a philosophical meditation on the deeper meanings of violence.
Thus, the film ambles along, amassing its cast of characters and muddying the waters so that Robicheaux grows more confused the more he knows. Amongst the suspects he must deal with are his ex-friend Baby Feet Balboni (John Goodman) and a shady businessman (Ned Beatty), both of whom have invested money in Sykes' movie. As more bodies turn up, Robicheaux also assembles his various allies, including his fellow cop and AA-buddy Lou (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and a scrappy FBI agent (Justina Machado) sent to help him track his killer. Whoever is responsible for the mutilated victims doesn't want to be found out, and he won't make it easy for anyone around Robicheaux. The murderer would rather add the cop and all of his cohorts to the body count.
Mixed reviews and gossip about on-set tension between Bertrand Tavernier and Tommy Lee Jones had caused me to suspect that In the Electric Mist was going to be a mess of a movie. That couldn't be further from the truth. Though not an instant classic by any stretch of the imagination, In the Electric Mist is a perfectly involving murder story. Its classic structure and the main character's internal code of ethics is of the same model of many of my favorite hardboiled tales. Tavernier also makes great use of the local setting to create a self-contained world that is just as full of character and seediness as any film noir city from the 1940s. He and cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer, who previously worked the blues with him in 'Round Midnight, use a wide lens to soak up all the local color and backwoods atmosphere they can.
Dave Robicheaux is the kind of character Tommy Lee Jones plays best. He's full of hard-won common sense and impatient of the rest of the world's inability to get aligned with how he sees things. The rest of the ensemble cast, which also includes Levon Helm, Mary Steenburgen, and Buddy Guy, click together well, each fitting their part in all the right ways. The material doesn't always sizzle--neither the bits with the Confederate General (Helm) nor the stuff on the fictional film set quite gel with the rest of the movie's down-home atmosphere, and the revelation of the killer sure seems to happen fast in comparison to the investigative preamble--but these fine actors manage to keep it together enough that In the Electric Mist always held my interest.
That said, In the Electric Mist does hit on one of my pet peeves by closing on a trite final shot that tries its damnedest to tie things together and give the movie an added air of spookiness. It's out of place and Tavernier punches the moment too hard. It always bugs me when a director has to go for one last ah-ha moment when a simple fade to black would do. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it definitely exits on the wrong foot, leaving me with disappointment where previously there had been none.
Tavernier and de Keyzer have shot In the Electric Mist in a very wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and Image sends the movie to DVD in mint condition. The anamorphic transfer has no digital glitches, has excellent colors and nice quality blacks, and looks warm and natural through and through.
The English language soundtrack is mixed in Dolby 5.1 and it has great atmosphere, filling all the speakers with music and ambient sound.
Closed captioning is available for English speaking viewers, and there are also Spanish subtitles.
The original theatrical trailer is included.
Bertrand Tavernier's adaptation of James Lee Burke, In the Electric Mist, has the feel of a classic detective movie, even if the film itself doesn't quite reach that status. Tommy Lee Jones continues to mine his special niche as the go-to guy for police officers who have spent too many years on the job, who know every in and out of the criminal element. On the trail of a newly murdered prostitute and a separate murder that has haunted him for four decades, he roots through an excellent ensemble cast in search of clues, keeping the movie going forward and staying mostly entertaining. Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.