In The Electric Mist

Tommy Lee Jones stars as Dave Robicheaux, small-town Louisiana sheriff investigating a murdered prostitute named Cherry Leblanc. On top of that, he has to deal with drunk film star Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard) and his more-responsible girlfriend (Kelly McDonald) roaring around the backwaters, who stumbled upon a chain-encrusted corpse on their set. Said corpse belongs to Dewitt Prejean, a young black man who “escaped” jail into the bayou, where he was shot by two men—a scene that’s etched into the memory of Dave, who happened to see the event as a tween.

As Dave continues his investigations—digging up a troubled past to find Prejean’s history, and finding that Leblanc is just the start to a chain of serial killings—he finds that they’re not as disparate as he thought they were. Instead, the crimes are linked. And that investigation will unearth the twisted and diverse history of this small backwater of Louisiana swamp… ranging from ghosts of Confederate generals to the 1960s racial tensions.

The cast does an admirable job. Tommy Lee Jones hands in a solid performance, better than some of his phoning-it-in roles (Captain America) even though you’ve seen him play this character before. Peter Saarsgard is great, but woefully underused; Kelly MacDonald does just as well in her small role. John Goodman is hamming it up in fine form. Very good performances, and the use of local talent is excellent—legendary guitarist Buddy Guy is the weak role in the acting department, but makes up for it with atmosphere and local flavor.

The film has plenty of interesting bits to play with. There’s some post-Katrina allegory here, with the local Mafia (run by John Goodman) buying up property, and commentary on the relief efforts; some social consciousness using the Jim Crow-era’s racial tensions as a touchstone; and a healthy dose of Southern Gothic and magical realism revolving around the Civil War, to go with its neo-noir mystery-thriller parts. Plus the big-city/rural divide, with the Robicheaux family and their neighbors contrasted with the hot-rodding actors and snide film crew. Safe to say, there’s a lot of great stuff going on.

If only the film knew how to use it. As a Franco-American production, the film has more of a European subtlety to it, eschewing the big-bang Hollywood techno-wizardry and action in favor of moody setting. After using all those pieces, crafting that fine plot, and layering that thick atmosphere, the film leads slowly to an underwhelming finale and a twist ending that wouldn’t have made it into a bad Twilight Zone episode. (We’re talking Outer Limits mediocrity with the ending.)

The use of long, slow shots is beautiful for atmosphere, and that subtle touch is masterful. It’s a soft, delicate, but deliberate pacing—the film knows where it’s going, and moves with ambient grace. But instead of bringing it home for a satisfying conclusion, the plot blows away with the wind, and the film’s beauty fades away in lost possibility. In The Electric Mist starts out with an excellent noirish miasma, looking like a clear-cut winner. But when it comes time to seal the deal, it slipped on its own lack of initiative. It’s not a bad film, but the blase ending failed to deliver on the buildup’s promises.

I wonder if the original novel is more satisfying, or if the longer director’s cut was improved—it saw theatrical release oversees; the shorter US version went straight to DVD. Which is what it feels like: an artsy European film that went straight-to-DVD in the States. And I wonder how its production woes, which delayed its release to 2009 after a 2007 shoot, affected the film.

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