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.
Guy Hancock It seems to be the same with the other film of the James Lee Burke novels about Dave Robicheaux.
I believe that the problem lies in the fact that Burke has created such a strong, detailed and complex background for Robicheaux, which is revealed across the novels, that this cannot be covered in a single film but is essential to understanding the character. This includes his wife’s background, where his adopted daughter comes from, his alcoholism and more.
I fully agree that it leads to film that is (a bit) flat.
Mélanie Fazi I haven’t read the books, but the film gave me the impression that lots of things from the original material had to be left out because the background must have been too detailed. I liked it, mostly for the atmosphere, but wasn’t totally convinced either.
Russell Schechter Thanks, Kim – I hadn’t even heard this was made much less gone straight to DVD. There also seem to be 3 different running times on different editions. Did you see the long cut? Doesn’t sound like it would make much difference, but I’m kind of curious to see it, if only as a devoted Burke reader.
Colin Murray This is one of those films that really should have worked better than it does. A lot of the problem does lie in the original plot. The sheer lushness of the writing carries you through in the book, and that extra quality just isn’t quite there in the film.
Chad Eagleton Think the Robicheaux books would work better as tv show. Like the gentleman above me said, there’s too much going on with the character for a single film to pull it off. The other problem, I think, is so much of the books involve the thoughts going on in Robicheux head. There’s too much that contingent on memories and flashback.
I’ve read the books. My wife hasn’t. She didn’t care about the characters and didn’t follow most of what was going on.