“The dead can hover on the edge of our vision with the density and luminosity of mist. And their claim on the Earth can be as legitimate and tenacious as our own.”
In The Electric Mist is based on one of James Lee Burke’s Detective Robicheaux novels, In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead. The role was previously played by Alec Baldwin in Heaven’s Prisoners. There couldn’t be any two more diverse actors playing the same role. I have never seen Baldwin’s film, so can’t make an actual comparison, but I suspect that Tommy Lee Jones adds far more depth and a more contemplative nature to the role.
Tommy Lee Jones is Robicheaux, a cop in a sleepy parish near New Orleans. He’s a self admitted alcoholic who tests his resolve by sidling up to a bar and ordering a drink. We first meet him in action at the scene of a brutal stabbing. A local prostitute has been slashed to death. On his return from the scene he makes a routine traffic stop that turns out to be a flashy Hollywood actor, Elrod Sykes (Sarsgaard). The actor’s in town to shoot a Civil War film. Just when Robicheaux is about to bust him for drug possession and DUI, he claims to have knowledge of where there’s a body. The body turns out to be the victim of a 40 year old hate crime that a young Robicheaux witnessed as a boy. Unfortunately he could never get anyone to believe him, and the body just sank into the swamp. Now Robicheaux ends up with two murders on his mind. He’s haunted by the ghost of a Civil War general that acts as his internal consciousness. He’s confident that the new killings are related to the return of his one time friend turned mob boss, Baby Feet Balboni (Goodman). Balboni is financing the movie being shot. As Robicheaux digs deeper, he discovers someone doesn’t want the case to be investigated, either case. People end up dead around him, and it only further weighs on his own mental state. Still, Robicheaux strives for a truth that might be hidden inside his own memory.
I love character studies, and this is a good one. This is a little change of pace for Tommy Lee Jones. The character is far more moody and often more laid back than Jones is known for. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have his moments. But even when he’s kicking the crap out of someone, he’s far more relaxed doing it. That’s not to say that Robicheaux isn’t a wonderful character. This is a complex human being, and Jones allows us to put the study back into the term character study. Talk about going against type. How about John Goodman as the ultra serious crime boss? Goodman shows he has chops far beyond the goofball personas he has made a career out of playing. He adds so many layers of eccentric personality to Baby Feet that you’d never think of him as a comic actor after this film. Mary Steenburgen is not used as much as she should be, playing Robicheaux’s wife. A criminal example of underused is Ned Beatty as Twinky LeMone. Beatty might be getting on in years, but he seems to only be getting better. There isn’t a bad apple in the barrel. The cast moves through the atmospheric Louisiana swamps as if they were born to it.
For some, this film will appear to move rather slowly. It’s not that the pace plods or weighs down. It’s just that Robicheaux has his own speed. If you’re willing to adjust your own timing chain ever so slightly, you’ll find that the pace is nothing short of perfect. The film moves at Robicheaux time. He’s in every scene. The entire film unfolds from his point of view. There is even some unnecessary narration. I say unnecessary, because anyone paying attention knows this is his story, and understands what he’s thinking and feeling. Tommy Lee Jones sees to that.
It’s all filmed on location near New Orleans. Of course, that was the setting of one of the more brutal hurricane strikes in recent years. And in case you forgot about it, the film feels it must mention Katrina every ten minutes or so. It’s become somewhat of a fad or trend in Hollywood to film in or around New Orleans. It helps rich actors, directors, and producers feel good about themselves and brag about helping to lift up the unfortunate. Often these films look forced and would have served everyone better being filmed wherever they were originally scheduled. This film belongs here, and should have been shot here Katrina or not. The swamp locations are the deciding piece of an atmospheric puzzle that frames these wonderful characterizations perfectly. I’ve never read any of Burke’s books, but I bet this is what he describes. I might even have to search one of those books down.
In The Electric Mist is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The cinematography is wonderful here. While the film often appears a little soft in focus and contrast, the locations manage to shine through. Everything’s a little dark and moody, so don’t look for anything brighter than Sykes’ red sports car in the film. The car’s rare flash of brilliant color might have been a brilliant artistic decision. Its splash of brightness only further marks it as alien here in this place. Greens are dark and lush. Water displays some digital compression that offers a little too much shimmer. Black levels are quite deep and pure.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track works. It’s not aggressive, but there are plenty of subtle moments that help to immerse us in the film. There are just the slightest sounds of birds or water movement in the swamps. The dialog is perfect, and you’ll understand most everything said.
Only a Trailer
There are a lot of subtle psychological things going on here. The director does a great job of capturing atmosphere, and the actors make the most of what they’re given. It might feel slow to most of you. I like to think of it as deliberate. The sessions with the Confederate general and a last frame cheat meant to tie that up are a bit out of place. Mostly I wish that the director had let it stand on its own without trying to add some rather forced explanation that makes no sense anyway. Still, I highly recommend you check it out. It’s a journey inside of Robicheaux’s mind, where “no one can escape the sins of the past”.