March 24, 2009

In the Electric Mist


Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ***½

In the Electric Mist is based on one of my favorite modern mystery novels, James Lee Burke's "In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead," a whodunit with touches of southern Gothic ghost story. A few things are rearranged from the book -- one key murder happens later in the film, for instance -- but screenwriting team Jerzy and Mary Olson-Kromolowski (who wrote the somewhat similarly toned The Pledge) remain largely faithful to the story. Veteran French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier (A Sunday in the Country, Round Midnight) is not as odd a choice as director as it might appear on the surface; after all, arguably Tavernier's finest work is the fantastic Coup de Torchon, which transplanted a seedy Jim Thompson pulp novel into colonial Africa. Yet despite this pedigree the film never even saw a legitimate theatrical release here, instead getting dumped unceremoniously to DVD. While it is far from perfect, it is quite a bit more interesting than that fate implies.

Tommy Lee Jones is spot-on casting, though it would have been even more so had this film happened ten to fifteen years ago; the protagonist, Detective Dave Robicheaux is a bit younger in the book. As it's based on the sixth in the Robicheaux series, there's already quite a bit of backstory for his character, who made one previous appearance in a film, the not as successful Heaven's Prisoners with Alec Baldwin as the detective. Since the book is written, as many mysteries are, from first person point of view, from the detective's perspective, the challenges of any adaptation are how to recapture their insights without dragging it down. While voice-over is generally frowned upon in film, there's a longstanding tradition in mysteries, especially in classic noir, to include that device, and its use here doesn't seem out of place, even if it comes sporadically.

The story begins as all good mysteries do, with a dead body -- that of a young prostitute found in the swamp. This is then followed by the discovery of another body, a black man with chains around him, which is stumbled on by alcoholic actor Elrod Sykes (the always good Peter Saarsgard) who is in New Iberia Parish for a film production, a Civil War epic. It's the entangling of these two mysteries that form the spine of the story. With the help of a Latina FBI agent, Rosie Gomez, played by Justina Machado (ER, Six Feet Under), Robicheaux slowly connects the dots between these murders and a series of other deaths in the area. Elrod Sykes tells Dave he's seen Civil War ghosts in the swamp, and since he's also a drunkard the detective is a bit skeptical; and when Robicheaux himself later sees, and talks, to the spirits, too, the fact that he's been dosed with LSD puts his account into doubt as well. The spectral aspect is the strangest part of the film, pulling it out of the straightforward mystery and into the realm of the unreal or surreal, but it also makes it more interesting.

Electric Mist offers a fine cast of recognizable character actors along with plenty of locals added for background roles. John Goodman's presence seems almost expected -- need a sleazy, sweaty larger than life character? Call Goodman. Here he plays a former acquaintance of Robicheaux's, a one-time baseball star who now is a low-rent disreputable nightclub owner turned movie producer (among other things). Nor should Ned Beatty's presence be a surprise; but it's hard to argue with his casting, in a small but key role as a a private security man who is also an investor in the film, and a potential suspect. And in yet more on-the-nose casting, filmmaker/writer John Sayles plays, yes, a beleaguered director.

Meanwhile, Mary Steenburgen has a nice chemistry with Jones as his wife as does young Alana Locke as his adopted daughter Alafair (you only know she's adopted if you read the books), but their scenes together feel underdeveloped -- though I was pleased to see Alafair's pet raccoon given a small role. More memorable is singer Levon Helm, from The Band, quite a character himself in real life, playing the ghost of a Confederate General who has conversations with Robicheaux. Helm brings what could have been a silly role a great deal of authenticity, though one can't help but wonder how much better still it would've been with someone like Hal Holbrook holding sway.

Tavernier captures the moody, misty Louisiana atmosphere and has a low-key, slow pace that fits the energy of the sticky South. While some scenes peter out a bit, when there are pulses of action and violence these also pack more of an impact. In some ways it reminded me of 70s cinematic mysteries, films like (the also Southern-set) Night Moves with Gene Hackman, in which the investigator's own disheveled personal life and occasional arrogance -- and proclivity for violent outbursts -- get them in over their head.

The finale does feel rushed, with a very last moment/shot that is too hokey to believe, but forgivable as a momentary lapse. Electric Mist isn't wholly successful from start to finish but is far more provocative and intellectually engaging a film than many other more straightforward suspense films coming out to theaters, and deserves to be discovered on home video.

Then read Burke's novel to fill in the numerable gaps.

[As an interesting aside, I was pointed to the story of Tavernier's struggles in getting the film shot and distributed, down to even the challenges of getting Tommy Lee Jones to eat on film. While the article implies they couldn't do a dinner scene because of this, they must have worked something out because just seven minutes into the film, there's a dinner scene -- Robicheaux and his family, and Jones is even eating, or fake-eating, in it. But he does look a bit miserable about it.]

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Posted by cphillips at March 24, 2009 10:32 AM
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