Why you’ll find Tommy Lee Jones’s latest great performance only on DVD.
It had the makings of a tense, knotty neo-noir, a kind of gumbo-flavored No Country for Old Men: two Academy Award-winning actors in an adaptation of one of James Lee Burke’s critically acclaimed thrillers, directed by a veteran French filmmaker with a long-standing affinity for American crime fiction. Even as recently as February, when In the Electric Mist premiered in competition at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, it seemed poised to become one of the year’s major cinematic events.
As with most noir, however, looks were deceiving. Less than a month later, the movie—which stars Tommy Lee Jones as troubled detective Dave Robicheaux; Mary Steenburgen as his wife, Bootsie; and an eclectic-bordering-on-bizarre supporting cast including John Goodman, Ned Beatty, Peter Sarsgaard, and the Band’s Levon Helm— turned up in the United States on DVD, in a version approximately fifteen minutes shorter than the one shown in Berlin. Its producers had reportedly thrown in the towel on a theatrical release in the U.S. after clashing with director Bertrand Tavernier, ultimately taking the film away from him and reediting it themselves. Tavernier has remained tight-lipped about the entire saga, though in a 2008 interview with the Guardian, he groused about the “domination” of showbiz lawyers and alluded to difficulties working with the notoriously prickly Jones. Describing one such on-set frustration, Tavernier said, “I could not do the dinner scene because Tommy Lee Jones does not like to eat on the screen.” If you want to see his preferred, 117-minute cut in theaters, you’ll need to travel to Europe, where it’s being released throughout 2009.
Now, for one last twist—the switchback that all good pulp melodrama relies on: Even in its butchered form, In the Electric Mist is a richly imagined, consistently engrossing thriller that, but for its occasional missteps, honors the considerable ambitions of Burke’s work. And Jones’s performance is one of his very strongest: Without a single wasted word or gesture, he brings to life a tortured recovering alcoholic for whom morality is a constantly evolving (and sometimes very ugly) thing. Had the movie’s release not gotten derailed, he might easily have been in the hunt for another Academy Award.
Set in Iberia Parish in post-Katrina Louisiana, In the Electric Mist (based on the sixth novel in the Robicheaux series, 1993’s In the Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead) centers on a pair of unsolved murders. A prostitute named Cherry LeBlanc, most recently employed by mafioso Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni (Goodman), is discovered mutilated in a swamp. Almost immediately thereafter, a booze-addled movie star named Elrod T. Sykes (Sarsgaard), in town to film a Civil War epic, stumbles upon a chain-bound skeleton—the remains, Robicheaux believes, of an escaped black prisoner whose murder he may have witnessed nearly four decades earlier. The past bleeds into the present, secrets come bubbling to the surface, and for Robicheaux, things inevitably get personal.
So why were the producers so turned off by Tavernier’s approach to In the Electric Mist, which is also one of the first features to grieve for Louisiana in the wake of Katrina, to take stock of the inaction, corruption, and indifference that have stymied the recovery process? Perhaps because the filmmaker—who cinched his international reputation with 1981’s Coup de torchon (see “French Revelation”), another movie that turned a piece of Southern-fried crime fiction inside out—never intended to deliver an easily digestible Hollywood mystery. Consider the baffling scene, straight from the novel, in which Robicheaux hallucinates a rambling conversation with Texas Civil War general John Bell Hood (Helm). A less audacious director would have avoided this strange, jarringly literary detour entirely. But Tavernier, working from a screenplay by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, allows the scene to unfold to the languid rhythms of Burke’s prose. Like the novelist, he takes ecstatic pleasure not in the murders and double-crossings and shocking reveals but in the philosophical underpinnings of the story and the way long-buried histories inform and animate the present. (It can hardly be a coincidence that director John Sayles, whose Lone Star is an obvious antecedent, turns up briefly here as the director of the film within the film.) And whereas so many pulp adaptations fail by trying to shoehorn the outlandish characters and over-the-top twists into a realist mode, Tavernier invests the proceedings with a self-conscious artificiality. (Pay close attention to Bruno de Keyzer’s cinematography, which brings to mind the slightly unreal-looking later works of Stanley Kubrick, particularly Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, in which soundstages in England stood in for the villages of Vietnam and the streets of New York City, respectively.)
The film is hardly without flaws. The subplot involving Sykes and his girlfriend (Kelly MacDonald) is barely developed. The introduction, midway through the proceedings, of a firebrand Latina FBI agent (Justina Machado) who arrives to aid Robicheaux’s investigation might have kept the pages turning in print, but it stops the movie cold. The resolution of the mysteries proves deeply unsatisfying. And yet if only to watch Jones bring Robicheaux to life, capturing his contempt for both himself and for the rotting world around him, In the Electric Mist deserves much better than the half-price bin at Blockbuster. Like a number of lawmen and officials Jones has played recently, including Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men and Hank Deerfield in In the Valley of Elah, Dave Robicheaux says very little, but a lifetime of disappointment seems etched into the rubbery creases on his forehead. Whereas so many other iconic actors (Nicholson, Pacino, De Niro) enter a kind of ham-bone phase after decades in front of the camera, Jones pares things down, stripping away actorly fuss, searching for the anguished essence of his characters. He turns in an extraordinary piece of acting, one that leaves you hopeful that he isn’t through with Robicheaux, that Tavernier isn’t through with James Lee Burke, and that the actor and director aren’t through with each other.
French Revelation: Another entrancing film from Bertrand Tavernier.
If you want to enhance your appreciation of In the Electric Mist, avoid Heaven’s Prisoners (1996), a harebrained thriller based on a Burke book of the same name that finds Alec Baldwin, madly miscast as Robicheaux, in an awkward tweener phase between his hirsute, hunky youth and his more cheerfully pudgy present-day self. Instead, check out Tavernier’s Coup de torchon (released in the U.S. as Clean Slate), which was nominated for the 1982 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Transposing crime writer Jim Thompson’s American South-set Pop. 1280 to French colonial Africa, Tavernier serves up a darkly comic portrait of a henpecked local police officer (Philippe Noiret) who finds that murder is a most convenient means of meting out justice. All the tropes that would turn up nearly three decades later in In the Electric Mist—the lush atmosphere, the heady debates about good versus evil, even those slyly cryptic final images—play out in entrancing fashion.