When a big Hollywood movie with big Hollywood stars goes straight to video, it usually is a sign that something has gone terribly wrong. That’s what I thought when I heard that the new Tommy Lee Jones film, In the Electric Mist , never made it to the theaters and went right into the video stores (and Netflix).
The movie is based on the great James Lee Burke detective thriller In the Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead, in which his Cajun detective, Dave Robicheaux, solves a couple of grisly murders and overcomes his own Vietnam-War induced flashbacks that feature dead Confederate soldiers arising from the Louisiana swamps to have conversations with him about life and death and war.
I just watched the video. The movie was–surprise to me!–terrific. Tommy Lee Jones was great as he usually is, as the haunted but honorable and morally upright Dave. The french director Bertrand Tavernier got southern Louisiana beautifully on film. The pictures were as evocative as Burke’s always great writing. The plot hummed along.
The other actors (including John Goodman doing a great bad guy, Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni; Mary Steenburgen as Dave’s paitent, put-upon wife Bootsie; Justina Machado–best known for her role as Rico’s wife on Six Feet Under –as FBI agent Rosie Gomez; and the always-reliable Ned Beatty as Twinky LeMoyne) were all but perfect.
The plot is essentially the same as the book’s, but moved up from the early ’90s to the present day, or at least post-Katrina. Dave gets sucked into a nerve-rattling investigation of a dead prostitute, which leads to re-opening the case of the murder of a prisoner that he happened to witness three decades earlier. Dave, as he is wont to do, takes the law into his own hands (above ) once or twice. He has flashbacks, including several talks with Confederate Army Gen. John Bell Hood, played eerily well by Levon Helm, best known as the drummer in The Band.
Dave’s Vietnam War service is an important part of the novel. It is not mentioned in the film, which is too bad. It could have further flushed out his character. The only hint is when Helm addresses Dave as “lieutenant” a couple of times.