In the Electric Mist – Borderland Film & Blu-ray Review

Foreign filmmakers have often had an interesting take on American life, particularly our more rural areas that are far from the internationally known (and too frequently photographed) cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. European directors like Wim Wenders and Paul Verhoeven have been moving freely across the Atlantic for decades, comfortably filming on either continent and able to offer fresh-feeling insights into the American character. One name I didn’t expect to be adding to that list was art-house icon Bernard Tavernier, a lesser known but formidable French filmmaker whose best work, including the delicate treatise on death, Daddy Nostalgie (which gave us the last performance of the great Dirk Bogarde) show an almost painterly eye toward capturing genuine human emotion. Tavernier’s films have always seemed very European in outlook, subject, and pacing, and apart from the murderous protagonist of Coup de Torchon (1981) we can’t imagine what in his resume made him seem like an appropriate choice to helm a modern American detective movie. The resulting mystery-thriller might come up short on raw, serial killer thrills, but IN THE ELECTRIC MIST features a string of terrific performances that make for a very pleasant 102 minutes.

Based on the novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, part of a series of books by author James Lee Burke, the film is centered on detective Dave Robicheau (Tommy Lee Jones) who works the parish around New Orleans. While on the trail of a suspected serial killer, Dave crosses paths with walking DWI Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard) a movie star who’s in town filming a civil war drama and manages to almost literally stumble over a long-buried corpse of a prisoner who had been murdered in cold blood – a murder witnessed by a young Robicheau who never reported it to the police. Thrown into this narrative gumbo are John Goodman as local “respectable citizen” Baby Feet Balboni, Mary Steenburgen as Robicheau’s splendidly age-appropriate wife, Bootsie, and The Band’s Levon Helm as the ghost of General John Bell Hood, who appears as part of either a vision or a dream to offer the occasional nugget of advice to the detective.

Tommy Lee Jones as Detetive Dave Robicheaux

Tommy Lee Jones as Detetive Dave Robicheaux

More a character piece than action thriller, IN THE ELECTRIC MIST’s superb cast is certainly its chief asset. Aside from the impressive list above, you’ll also find Ned Beatty (reunited with Big Easy co-star Goodman), James Gammon;  even blues legend Buddy Guy turns up in a small role – and performs! Tavernier has always had a way with actors, and he brings out fine performances from the eclectic cast; Jones somehow manages to create yet another weathered law enforcement character that is shaded with enough nuance to feel utterly different from No Country for Old Men’s Tom Bell or The Fugitive’sSam Gerard. Tavernier’s name gets added to a short list – along with Jim McBride and the Cohen brothers – of directors who know exactly how to handle John Goodman, who seems convincingly able to turn from a colorful Bayou stereotype into a very dangerous killer at the drop of the hat. Goodman’s Balboni operates a stolen goods warehouse in a church abandoned since hurricane Katrina, offering a sobering view of the wasteland that much of the area surrounding New Orleans remains today. And while the film wisely steers clear of politics, you also feel like the grim picture painted of life in southern Louisiana is sadly accurate.

IN THE ELECTRIC MIST’s most unusual moment arrives when Jones, whose drink had been spiked with LSD, crashes his car in a ditch and staggers into what appears to be an actual Civil War-era encampment. This is the first of several scenes between Jones and Levon Helm, who is surprisingly strong in a part that’s more than a little tricky to pull off. This is exactly the sort of narrative device that can work well in the context of a book but can easily appear forced and awkward onscreen; fortunately, it is handled amazingly well here. It is in these scenes that the film feels most at ease, as the mood piece that might have been.

What doesn’t work as well is Jones’ narration, which smacks as a classic last-minute fix for a troubled post production. Though we don’t know what was cut or by whom, the version of IN THE ELECTRIC MIST available on home video is significantly shorter than the version that played the festival circuit. This certainly accounts for the jumpy nature of the narrative and some of the rushed-feeling transitions. There are also characters, like Ned Beatty’s sinister businessman and Jones’ unwanted FBI partner, who come off short changed and under-nourished as a result of the too brief running time.

Ironically, editorial fine tuning turned out to be moot as IN THE ELECTRIC MIST was denied the theatrical release that it deserved and went straight to video. The good news is that Image’s Blu-Ray release looks absolutely stunning, with bright, bold bayou colors that pop off the screen and a pleasing level of detail. Unfortunately, that is all there is; apart from the theatrical trailer there are no other extras on the disc.

A vision of the ghost of a Confederate Soldier

A vision of the ghost of a Confederate Soldier

IN THE ELECTRIC MIST (2009). Directed by Bertrand Tavenier. Screenplay by Kerzy Kronolowski & Mary Olson-Kronolowsky, based on the novel In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Deadby James Lee Burke. Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, John Goodman, Kelly Macdonald, Mary Steenburgen, Peter Sarsgaard, Ned Beatty, Justina Machado, James Gammon, Levon Helm, John Sayles, Gary Grubbs, Alana Locke, Louis Herthum, Buddy Guy.

About the Author

Drew Fitzpatrick

By day, Drew Fitzpatrick toils at publishing in the black heart of Manhattan. But by night, he dons a pair of fetishistic black leather gloves and grinds out the "Internet’s only horror-themed Blog": The Blood-Spattered Scribe.

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