In The Electric Mist
Every so often it is great to sit back with a good old fashion murder mystery. While this has never been my favorite genre in literature or movies it has always provided a good change of pace. Three is just something about a overworked detective tracking down clues to solve some heinous murder that is appealing. In more recent years a crime drama has become an off shoot of science fiction with the use of modern forensic technology to gather and explain the infinitely small clues left behind. Like many people I was brought up on the old school mysteries. There were no advanced science degrees necessary to solve the crime just a lot of shoe leather and a man determined to bring the murderer to justice. A return to this older format was recently attempted by the film ‘In the Electric Mist’ by Bertrand Tavernier. Admittedly it is not a great film. It will never be compared to the old film noir classics of the forties. What it does provide is a solid piece of entertainment. It reminded me more of those pulp soft covered novels that used to sell for about fifty cents back in the day. They had a good mystery that unfolded through the story and where fun to read. You didn’t expect greatness so there was no disappointment. It seems that every film tries too hard to be great when they should be more concerned with providing a strong entertainment value. There are many missteps made here but the effort is an honest one and that should be celebrated by fans of the genre. It would have been great if the film could live up to its potential but if you are in the mood for a convoluted murder mystery this might just fit the bill. The film does have a cast that is composed of some talented and well known actors but the fundamental story is such as there is little to showcase their considerable abilities. It is a shame when so many movies are the same that anything that deviates from the pact seems refreshing even if it is not particularly good in the first place. This is the case here. The film is entertaining but the nagging feeling that there could have been more is a let down. The movie got its start in the Berlin International Film Festival and is getting its wide release as a direct to video flick. Lately such a release has less of a stigma than previously held but there are still some movies that the distributors known will not succeed in the theaters. In the case the release is through Image Entertainment and they are well known for giving smaller films a chance.
The story comes from the popular novel ‘In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead’ by James Lee Burke. This is the sixth book in the series and many of the problems with the story as presented in the film can be traced back to this fact. The screenplay was adapted by the husband and wife writing team of Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski. Both had one previous script, ‘The Pledge’, another detective story. The pervading feel of this story is that the audience has come into the middle of a large tale. There appears to be an unspoken understanding that you already are familiar with the protagonist Dave Robicheaux (Tommy Lee Jones). Too many assumptions are made for members of the audience who are not fans of the series of novels. The plot lines are convoluted which is to be expected in a mystery of this sort but without the necessary exposition the results are muddy and frequently confusing. There are also characters that come and go seemingly without explanation or real purpose. Much of this may be readily apparent to those that have read all of the novels but for someone coming into this film cold it can cause the plot to go off track. All of this is not to say that there are not some points to the story that works. There is a surrealistic touch to the plot that is unusual and keeps the story engaging.
Bertrand Tavernier is a notable and award winning director mostly in his native France. For years he has been regarded as a master of the mystery and has drafted some of the best in the genre. His style is such that often encompasses social commentary reflecting his strong believes in that arena. In this film he does well considering the script ambles. The setting of the story lends itself well to the feel of a movie by Tavernier; the Bayou of Louisiana. The heavy French influence of that part of this country was conducive to the director as well as perfect for setting a dark and mysterious mood. There are many ways to present a murder mystery and one of the classic is to use the first person narrative. In this case the point of view is supplied by Robicheaux who appears in every scene. This increases the intimacy of the presentation pulling the audience in. He also uses the scenery to good advantage working alongside his director of photography Bruno de Keyzer using the location as an active participant of the story. Another thing that sets Tavernier apart is the fashion in which he paces the movie. He takes his time in laying out the premise and basic setup of the mystery. This may be more of an European methodology and a departure from the rush that many American mystery directors are prone to.
Dective Dave Robicheaux is working his best on being a recovering alcoholic. His current case is one that few are concerned about; the murder of Cheri LaBlanc, a prostitute. While working on the case he stops Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard) and his girlfriend driving drunk. Sykes is an actor working a film being shot in the area. As Robicheux deepens his investigate he discovers a skeleton on the movie set that is tied to an old, unsolved case. The plot thickens when Dave’s friend Julie 'Baby Feet' Balboni (John Goodman) returns to town and it turns out that he is one of the film’s producers. The story takes a strange twist when somebody laces Dave’s drink with LSD which results in an hallucination of taking to a Confederate general. This gives a set of clues to Dave that link the current murder to a serial killer with a predilection for young hookers.
Tommy Lee Jones appears to be making this type of role his career; the tough cop with a plethora of personal problems and a strong sense of justice. The thing is he is so good at it that you barely notice that he has bee type cast in the role. He has this type of detective down to a science. He has a presence on screen that in palpable. Even though you know how the character will develop it is a joy to watch this master class actor at work. Overall the film could have been better and it takes a lot of concentration to follow but it is well directed and the acting is fun. Image has started to get into the high definition world and this film is included in their new catalog. It is available in both DVD and Blu-ray to accommodate all levels of systems. It doesn’t hit its potential but in the right frame of mind it can be enjoyable.