Sunday, August 22, 2010
Play Misty For Me
Today: In the Electric Mist: Mord in Louisiana
This 2009 film from French director Bertrand Tavernier came and went with little fanfare despite a pretty high-wattage cast. Tommy Lee Jones stars as Dave Robicheaux, the sheriff's detective of Iberia Parish in Louisiana who is investigating the brutal murder of a 19-year-old woman. In the course of the investigation, several more bodies are found, and all are connected to each other and somehow (well, in Robicheaux's mind) with the death of an African-American man in 1965, a murder witnessed by Robicheaux when he was a young boy. The region is rife with corruption, and one of the biggest criminals is Julie "Baby Feet" Balboni (played by the hulking John Goodman). Balboni, whom Robicheaux thinks is connected to the murders, is funding a film being shot in the area, and he plus a couple big movie stars are in town for the shoot. The biggest star of the film, Elrod T. Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard) has an alcohol problem, and quickly (and continuously) makes Robicheaux's acquaintance by driving his fire-engine-red Lamborghini around town in most erratic fashion.
Here's where a bit of whimsy comes into the frame. Sykes alerts Robicheaux to some skeletal remains which the film crew ran across during a shoot. These remains turn out to be of the victim whose shooting Robicheaux witnessed decades ago. But as they discuss this, Sykes off-handedly mentions mysterious sightings of Confederate soldiers bivouacked in the bayou, and his bizarre observations are given a spooky credence by little tidbits of information about the case and about Robicheaux's personal life. We don't suspect him in the murders, but his information is odd, and the source of the information is (literally) incredible. When Robicheaux himself at first witnesses, then begins to have daily, oblique conversations with, Confederate General John Bell Hood (a fabulous performance by the polymath drummer Levon Helm), it seems that all the sane folks have really left the building. I'm not quite prepared to label it a Grand Non-Sequitur Diversion, but like with the cowboy character in The Big Lebowski (a.k.a "The Stranger"), I haven't yet grasped why the Confederates are in the film at all. They don't hurt anything, really, but neither would a three-headed alien.
The film comes from one of a series of novels by James Lee Burke which feature the detective Dave Robicheaux, In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead (well, I guess THAT explains what the Rebs are doing in the movie), and what separates the film from a standard police / murder mystery is this fabulous setting in the misty, other-worldly bayou of Louisiana. Coupled with the bluesy, Cajun soundtrack, the story feels uniquely tied to this locale. Especially after the devastation of hurricane Katrina, this is a part of America which feels almost like a separate, third-world country. It's a great location for a murder mystery.
John Goodman, Peter Sarsgaard, Mary Steenburgen (who is quite wonderful), Kelly MacDonald, Pruitt Taylor Vince and Ned Beatty round out the cast. Plus blues guitar legend Buddy Guy, who plays a musician named "Hogman." Guy, I must say, sings and plays much better than he acts. His scenes brought the whole illusion crashing down. A shame when there are so many actors who could have done something with this role. (Well, his vibe eluded me, anyway. Maybe I'll feel different after I let it set for a while.)
This is not a high-budget film, though it certainly didn't want for acting talent. The pacing is lovely--leisurely but not too slow--and the locations are better than any set. But there are several scenes where the lighting is quite jarring (twilight scenes which are obviously movie-lit), and there are just brief glimpses here and there which I can't help thinking could have been cleaned up. (This leads me to wonder exactly what the markers of a big budget--or a lack of one--are in this kind of movie. I guess I can't really define it. I suppose if I'm going to make the charge I should pay more specific attention.) Tommy Lee Jones has come to specialize in his particular brand of Lawman character, and his Robicheaux is very like his Sheriff Ed-Tom Bell in No Country For Old Men (which in turn isn't so different from his role in The Fugitive and US Marshals). It's a role he plays naturally and convincingly, and his saddle-leather complexion and lined face tell of a hard life. He's asked here to play a bit of a tough guy which at his age seems only marginally believable. I just don't quite see him dispatching guys twice his size as he is seen to do. He's also a proponent of a more rough-and-tumble brand of justice than we're used to seeing from his characters, but this seems to violate his established persona rather than anything in the script or setting. On the contrary.
So despite threatening to have a made-for-TV feel, this was a good story and a nice little use of two hours.