In the Electric Mist (2009)

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Written by: Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski, based on In the Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead by James Lee Burke

Directed by: Bertrand Tavernier

My mom was a fan of James Lee Burke’s murder mysteries — which are still on my shelves, unread, and I was intrigued by this adaptation of his novel In the Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead. Let’s face it: Tommy Lee Jones, Peter Sarsgaard, John Goodman, Kelly Macdonald, Mary Steenburgen — what a kick-ass cast! Sarsgaard alone is enough to sell me on just about any movie.

This beautifully shot, atmospheric thriller — rich in history and Southern culture — offers excellent acting and some suspenseful moments. It has some wonderful elements. An intriguing mystery and interesting characters.

Gorgeous shots of the Louisiana bayou, eerily shrouded in mist or vibrantly illuminated. An intriguing link to the tragic and fascinating history of the civil war with a blurred line between past and present, imagination and reality. Good old fashioned murder, mayhem, and corruption. Not to mention the fabulous names of some of the good ole boys of rural Louisiana: Twinky, Hogman, and Baby Feet. I mean, how awesome is that? Seriously, when a dude goes by a moniker like Baby Feet, you can assume he isn’t afraid of anything.

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However, all these elements never quite came together. In the end, the mystery and crime aspect of the film didn’t seem believable, and it had the feel of a conventional thriller movie — with a somewhat predictable climactic scene — that didn’t show us anything new.

Detective Dave Robicheaux (Tommy Lee Jones) is tracking a serial killer who preys on young women when his attention is turned to a much older case. He pulls over Hollywood actor Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard) as he drunkenly careens through town in his ostentatious sports car. Sykes, who is in town working on a movie set during the Civil War, buys himself some leniency by telling Robicheaux he knows the location of a corpse. He spotted it in the swamp and, apparently, didn’t find it necessary to report it before.

This leads the detective to the remains of a black man who was murdered in 1965 for the unpardonable sin of having consensual sex with a white man’s wife. This murder was — unsurprisingly — never brought to justice. Robicheaux flashes back to the moment when, as a boy, he saw the man — unarmed and shackled — shot down in the swamp. The local good ole boys see no need to delve into 40-year-old “nigger trouble.” Infuriating, but unsurprising. Meanwhile Robicheaux is visited by General John Bell Hood, a long-dead Confederate soldier, who offers guidance in making peace with the past.

The long-buried 1965 murder case proves to be tangled up with the serial murders and political corruption involving misappropriation of FEMA funds intended for rebuilding after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. This leads to one of my issues with this film. Several intertwined threads comprise this story, and the old murder case is the only one that reaches a satisfying conclusion. The resolution of the serial murder investigation feels flimsy, and its connection to the other case seems contrived. The political corruption angle is never fully developed. It would have been better to stick with one mystery and do it well.

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This movie is flawed in other ways, as well. I am probably becoming a tough customer when it comes to mysteries, because I have read so many. This problem was exacerbated by watching this film with The Hubby. He has no patience with shoddy plotting and police procedure in crime movies, because having been in the law enforcement profession for 20 years, he knows how it’s done. On the other hand, I go into mysteries prepared to forgive some gaps in plausibility — I’m often eager to suspend disbelief. Even so, there are a few things I couldn’t overlook:

  • First and foremost, the victim of a 1965 murder is identified, and a key plot point is the discovery that his belt and shoelaces are missing. Seriously? After lying in a swamp for 40 years, the victim’s clothing hasn’t decomposed? There must be a powerful preservative in that bayou.
  • Robicheaux seems like a tough and savvy detective, and he is devoted to his wife Bootsie and his daughter Alfie. Yet when he realizes someone is out to kill him, he doesn’t feel a need to relocate his family from their secluded home or have someone stick around to keep an eye on them. What’s that about?
  • Plus there was the usual cinematic business of charging into a suspect’s home without a warrant. Why do fictional cops always do that? Are they OK with the fact that the fruits of their labor will be inadmissible in court? To make matters worse, when Robicheaux tackles the door with a lock-picking kit, it springs open like magic. If I had known breaking and entering was so effortless, I might have been enticed into a life of crime.

On the positive side — visually — this is a beautiful film. It offers solid performances across the board, and it is delightfully atmospheric. This intensifies the sense of the past resonating in the present. It conjures an awareness of living with layers of history, still alive and visible, from the agony of Civil War battlefields to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. In keeping with this, it touches on the theme of racism, both past and present.

There is much that’s worth seeing here. Unfortunately, some vital threads of the story are weak, the atmospheric storytelling can’t camouflage major gaps in plausibility, and — in the end — it feels like a conventional and somewhat predictable cinematic thriller.

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