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Crime-novel fans that gripe when their favorite books are ruined by the movies might be happily surprised by In the Electric Mist, an atmospheric adaptation of a "Dave Robicheaux" thriller by James Lee Burke. If the approach to the happenings in and around a Louisiana bayou seems both quirky and respectful of old-fashioned crime fiction, credit the work of Bertrand Tavernier, a French director renowned in his home country for his knowledge of classic American films. In the Electric Mist doesn't try to bury us in hyped action thrills, but instead builds a murder mystery in the style of David Goodis or Charles Willeford, using colorful local characters and slightly stylized dialogue where appropriate.
The movie is making its American premiere on DVD and Blu-ray not because of quality but due to the implosion of the American film market. Independent labels are closing at an alarming pace, pruning our multiplex choices down to only those shows deemed marketable by the majors. In the Electric Mist is hitting domestic Blu-ray before its scheduled premieres in several European countries.
That's a shame, for Tavernier's film could easily draw theatrical audiences. Tommy Lee Jones is Dave Robicheaux, a former New Orleans PD detective now working in the backwater of the New Iberia parish. Local authorities routinely ignore clues that might lead to investigations requiring work. Robicheaux takes on a new crime and investigates an old one concurrently. A film company is making a picture about the Civil War in the beautiful bayou locations, and in arresting the drunken movie star Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard of Shattered Glass and Kinsey), Dave finds the body of a black prisoner murdered back in the 1960s -- a shooting he thinks he witnessed as a youngster.
Dave wonders if the movie company has something to do with a number of gruesome killings of local prostitutes, especially when he finds out that the slimy local racketeer Julie "Baby Feet" Balboni (John Goodman) is one of the investors. The twin crimes refuse to yield clues because people who should know won't talk. A black musician (Buddy Guy) advises Dave that he stays clear of White Man's Business. Local business booster Twinky Lemoyne (Ned Beatty) lectures Robicheaux on the wisdom of turning a blind eye on the racially troubled past. When it becomes clear that somebody's trying to frame and/or murder him, Dave has no choice but to resort to extreme measures.
In the Electric Mist is a basic detective thriller with generous side benefits. The show is first and foremost a character drama, populated with types atypical for Hollywood detective thrillers: Dave Robicheaux meets no wealthy heiresses eager to jump into bed with him. He provides moral support for the alcoholic actor Sykes and his concerned actress girlfriend Kelly Drummond (Kelly Macdonald of No Country for Old Men). Dave works well with FBI agent Rosie Gomez (Justina Machado) and his faithful cop sidekick Lou Girard (Pruitt Taylor Vince). The post-Katrina Cajun setting is both beautfiul and dangerous. The Katrina disaster has uncovered old crimes while making new ones possible: venal scum like Baby Feet have grown fat from hurricane relief scams.
The movie has a fantastic element as well. We experience everything from Robicheaux's point of view, complete with occasional voiceover narration. At one point Dave has a weird psychic experience that may be induced by LSD. He stumbles into what appears to be a real Civil War encampment, and is given advice on his case by none other than the grizzled General John Bell Hood (Levon Helm). The General Bell hallucination returns several times with calming words that allow Dave to put his mistakes and failures in perspective. This time-tripping sidebar is a definite departure from the genre norm, and reminds us of the strange phenomena in the difficult-to-see Florida-based crime thriller, John D. MacDonald's 1984 A Flash of Green, directed by Victor Nunez.
In the Electric Mist leaves many details open for further franchise installments. Dave is no loner but a family man whose wife Bootsie (Mary Steenburgen) mostly stays on the sidelines back at his bait shop. Daughter Alafair (Alana Locke) comes into play only when the bad guys need a way to force Robicheaux's hand. As in a European thriller, the plot isn't locked into a predetermined pattern. We can't tell who the murderer is by simply checking the billing order of the cast.
The emphasis on character and atmosphere is bound to frustrate viewers expecting high-powered action content. There are no explosions, kung-fu fights or wild swamp boat chases. Some have already scoffed at scenes in which Tommy Lee Jones, an actor approaching senior citizen status, bests bigger and younger hoods in bar fights. Baloney, this is Tommy Lee Jones we're talking about. 1 Even if the actor is technically a bit elderly for the Dave Robicheaux part, fans of the James Lee Burke novels will be pleased -- few younger stars possess Jones' masculine integrity. 2
Image Entertainment's Blu-ray of In the Electric Mist is a fine encoding of a movie that takes every advantage of its Jeanerette, Louisiana locations. Rendered in sharp HD, the colorful cinematography is a good substitute for a vacation; the audio is rich and full. The version on disc is fifteen minutes shorter than what was shown at some film festivals, but the movie doesn't feel like a Weinstein-style chop 'n' channel edit job. It's not immediately known if this is the final length, or a cut-down.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
In the Electric Mist Blu-ray rates:
1. I had an uncle, an airman who once served as a military policeman; even retired at age 70 he was still a formidable bruiser, with impressively sharp reflexes.
2. Director Phil Joanou took the Dave Robicheaux franchise for a spin in Heaven's Prisoners, a 1996 movie that yielded mixed reviews. His Robicheaux was played by Alec Baldwin.
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