My notes on In the Electric Mist.When you get a major director (Bertrand Tavernier), a best-selling source novel (James Lee Burke’s In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead), an on-a-roll character star playing a series detective (Tommy Lee Jones as Dave Robicheaux), a standout supporting cast (Mary Steenburgen, Peter Sarsgaard, John Goodman, Kelly Macdonald, Pruitt Taylor Vince, James Gammon, Justina Machado, Ned Beatty, Levon Helm, Buddy Guy) and a workable thriller plot (is a present-day string of Louisiana serial killings connected with the 1960s murder of a black man whose corpse has just shown up?) and the result still goes straight DVD, there is obviously some problem. Actually, this isn’t a disaster – but it is a bit flat, and feels on a par with the average entry in a TV detective series: a problem is that all the characters are simply here, and get little elucidation about their backstories even when they are crucial to the unravelling plot (young Dave witnessed the murder of the black guy when he was a kid – and seems not to have mentioned it since) while supporting characters like Dave’s wife (Steenburgen) and daughter are just plot coupons who get passed around.
It has entertaining turns – Goodman makes a good sleaze, a gangster trying to bump himself up as a movie producer – and Jones gives good hardman when he’s battering minions in order to track the killer. The hero is not above planting evidence, leaving a drop-gun to excuse the shooting of an unarmed man, and is a recovering drunk who gets slipped LSD at a party (it’s never established who did this) and either hallucinates or time-trips into a liminal zone where he chats with a long-dead Confederate General (Helm). This weird streak sits beside regular sleuthing and rescuing stuff. Tavernier made a great Jim Thompson movie (Coup de Torchon), in which he shifted the setting to North Africa: this has some local flavour, but it doesn’t quite catch fire. A few plot devices – the innocent shot dead because the hero has lent her his raincoat, the sidekick whose death is ruled as suicide though the hero sees the giveaway clues which confirm it was a murder, the scumbag who hangs around the bus station picking up runaways to turn into hookers and who gets a righteous ass-kicking from the good guy – are hokey, and the business about shooting a film in the parish, which brings a drunken movie star (Sarsgaard) to town, doesn’t really intersect with the rest of the plot.