And this is why you should never overlook the direct-to-video shelf.
Indeed, how a movie as solid, as exciting, and as packed with top talent as "In the Electric Mist" can be tossed a DTV release while lesser films pack the multiplexes remains as deep a mystery to me as the thick whodunits that populate this film's story. The film, an adaptation of James Lee Burke's crime novel "In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead," stars Tommy Lee Jones, John Goodman, Peter Sarsgaard, Kelly Macdonald, Mary Steenburgen, Ned Beatty, Justina Machado, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and music icons Buddy Guy and Levon Helm. It's directed by veteran helmer Bertrand Tavernier, he of "'Round Midnight." The screenwriters are Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Koromolowski, whose last work was the biting thriller "The Pledge." This is an impressive roster, and they all deliver.
Jones plays Dave Robicheaux, the lieutenant detective of New Iberia, Louisiana, featured in seventeen (and counting) of Burke's mystery novels. Robicheaux made the screen once before, in 1996's "Heaven's Prisoners," starring Alec Baldwin. Now comes Jones in the role, and it's a hell of a fit: the actor once again makes the most of the world-weariness that's stamped all over his face. (Jones may have a killer smile, but he looks like he was born to frown.)
Here, Robicheaux struggles to connect the murder of a prostitute to mobster Julie "Baby Feet" Balboni (Goodman), or maybe to local businessman Twinky LeMoyne (Beatty). Both are also investors in a Hollywood movie that's come to town; Robicheaux doesn't want to deal with the drunken escapades of its two stars (Sarsgaard and Macdonald), but they're a link to the discovery of a body, a man killed decades ago - a man Dave saw shot dead.
As if that's not crowded enough for a plot, there's also the matter of Confederate General John Bell Hood (Helm), the long-dead soldier who appears one night in the bayou after someone slips some LSD into Dave's Dr. Pepper. The kindly general returns to Dave throughout the film, perhaps a ghost, perhaps an hallucination, and the two enjoy discussions on the topics of death, honor, and the neverending war between good and evil.
There's a little too much going on in "Electric Mist," yet neither the script nor Tavernier rushes us through the proceedings. There's a quiet, deliberate pacing, inspired perhaps by the laid-back world of the bayou, that lends the film the tone of a cozy novel; we're allowed to soak in the ambiance and revel in character detail as the plot rolls along. Yet it never feels too slow, with that plot always driving us forward.
And then there's Jones, asked to carry the story, with his character in every scene. We've seen characters like this before, these righteous men not above bending the law to ensure justice, but Jones brings a certain melancholy to his role. Our first shot of Dave finds him at a bar, staring down a full glass; through voice-over narration, he tells us he is an alcoholic, sometimes tempted to drink, "but I never do." Does Robicheaux need these temptations to keep him honest? Are there parallels between liquor and the other temptations of his life? As Dave surrounds himself with evil, would his occasional dips into lawlessness (some planted evidence here, some roughing up a witness there) count as avoiding temptation, or succumbing to it?
Alcoholism plays a key role in character and mood. Dave's trusty back-up man (Vince) is also his AA friend; later, Dave reveals he is trying to reach out to the drunken movie star in the same manner. He is a man who can place his trust in those who have also seen dark days.
Nearly everyone in "Electric Mist" has seen dark days, and that is its appeal. It's a mystery as thick as the swamp, and as enchanting as a Buddy Guy blues lick. It's an old fashioned murder thriller, a comfortable paperback on a stormy night.
Video & Audio
For all its direct-to-video status, "In the Electric Mist" looks as slick as any modern theatrical release in this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The muted bayou colors pop nicely, and the image reveals a solid depth throughout.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is equally rich and full, with music and effects nicely handled without overwhelming the dialogue. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are provided.
The film's trailer (1:43; 2.35:1 anamorphic), cheaply constructed and chock full of spoilers, is the lone extra.
A mystery built on texture and tone, "In the Electric Mist" is an excellent thriller that shouldn't go overlooked by fans of the genre. The lack of extras is disappointing, but that doesn't mean this is any sort of throwaway title. Highly Recommended.