The character of Dave Robicheaux, Louisiana lawman, appears in more
than a dozen crime novels written by James Lee Burke. "In the Electric
Mist," #6 in the series, is the second one to be adapted into a film. The
first to reach film status was "Heaven's Prisoners," #2 in the book series,
which featured Alec Baldwin, then in his thirties, as Robicheaux. The
new one stars Tommy Lee Jones, who is 62.
Electric Mist had a lot of promise. After all, ol' Tommy Lee seems to have
the mastered the art of playing a tough and taciturn southern lawman. The
Hollywood Reporter summed it up perfectly: "Tommy Lee Jones does his usual
wonderful job of playing Tommy Lee Jones, that is, a contemplative but
alcoholic and violent small-town sheriff who beats people up when he has
to, between bouts of philosophical rumination rendered in poetic
voiceover." Jones is supported by a strong cast including John Goodman,
Peter Sarsgaard and Mary Steenbergen. Burke's books are highly regarded by
mystery fans, and this is a particularly quirky one about modern crimes
being solved in parallel to a crime which occurred 40 years earlier. At
one point Sheriff Robicheaux gets some LSD slipped into his Dr. Pepper, so
he starts to imagine conversations with a Confederate general, just for a
little extra southern-fried flavor. The director of the film is Bertrand
Tavernier, a favorably regarded French helmsman who has nearly two dozen
directorial credits at IMDb, including The Passion of Beatrice, and Coup
de Torchon. The story is dripping with Louisiana atmosphere: olden
plantations, neighborhoods destroyed by the great hurricane, bayous in the
morning fog, torrential rains, zydeco music, flamboyant accents, and more.
So, given all those elements, why isn't it a better movie?
The script is the culprit.
Tavernier, although a virtual novice in English-language films, did a
fine job at presenting the atmosphere and attitude of Loozeann, and the
film flows nicely for about forty minutes - and then it just falls apart.
It seems as if the authors were about 40 pages into the script and
suddenly realized that they were going to have a six hour film on their
hands if they didn't start moving the story forward a little faster. About
halfway into the film, the plot twists just start piling up and people
start dying like flies. When the film was approaching the finish line,
while I was trying to piece together who was actually responsible for all
the dead bodies, Tommy Lee suddenly started spewing some resonant southern
prose in voice-over, telling us what happened to a bunch of the characters
after the movie ended. Unfortunately, the movie never did end. Tommy's
narrative didn't include one of the guys who actually committed the key
murder from 40 years earlier, and it didn't explain exactly why some of
the people died in the present, or how the murderer could have gotten to
them. I know who the latter-day murderer was, but I don't know how he
could possibly have been where he was or could have done what he did in at
least two cases. As for the other guy who was involved in the murder in
the past, that story line just ended without closure. For all the
build-up, the revelation of the two baddies and the subsequent denouement
were casual and underwhelming.
And then, out of nowhere, there was a science-fiction element in the
I didn't make that up. Honest.
That final moment before the credits was just plain dumb. All of a
sudden the film had had one of those crazy endings after the ending,
totally out of left field, like the ones Hitchcock would deliver while
talking to the camera after his TV show, or the ones that used to cap the
stories in the old EC horror comics.
To Bertrand Tavernier's credit, the version of the film which he
presented at Berlinale did not include the preposterous "crypt-keeper"
finale. On the other hand, Tavernier's version must have included many
scenes which have subsequently been deleted, because the festival version
was 117 minutes long, while the current version is 15 minutes shorter.
I, for one, would like to see Tavernier's cut.
Despite plot holes and pacing issues which may have been created when
the studio altered Tavernier's cut, In the Electric Mist is not at all a
bad film. As straight-to-video films go, it is definitely top-shelf
material, and you absolutely should rent it if you have any interest in
this type of genre film and/or in Burke's writing. Those inclined to enjoy
this kind of story, and I count myself in that group, will find it worth
watching for all of its plusses, and will be tolerant of its problems. But
with the high-powered talent involved in this production, the investors
had to be hoping for something better than a strong cable movie, and that
just never emerged.
Too bad. It coulda been a contenda.