In the Electric Mist (2009)

Tommy Lee Jones is Dave Robicheaux, James Lee Burke’s tough, grizzled, New Orleans detective. Fortunately, Tommy Lee Jones’ name is almost always preceded by the words tough and grizzled so it seems a match made in heaven. Dave Robicheaux first cropped up on screen in Heaven’s Prisoners played by wordgame fan Alec Baldwin. From Baldwin to Lee Jones in 13 short years means life must have been very tough on Dave Robicheaux. Jones plays Robicheaux like he plays any other, world weary, strong and silent, basically decent American; Competently and apparently effortlessly. Every other actor seems to be showing off when placed on screen with his sad sack, southern fried, ex alcoholic. Particular mention must go to John Sayles, who plays a director so badly it jarrs the picture out of focus. Not quite Roth in Basterds bad in the director-actor canon but not wise either.

Robicheaux is asked to solve a case of mutilated prostitutes on the City’s time but also carries the murder of a black prisoner he witnessed when he was younger around with him, lurking unsolved and unpunished in his mind. The old case rears it’s racially aggravated head when a movie star (Peter Saarsgard) finds the body on location of a civil war drama being shot out in the Bayous.

New Orleans is that most iconic and enigmatic of American film cities (down at the back NYC), filled with architecture, weather and attitudes totally unlike the rest of mainland USA. The devastation wreaked on her by Katrina is impossible to ignore, rude even. Empty streets and abandoned cars litter shots and we are comprehensively given the impression of a city and people ony just attempting a recovery. Not as shoved in your face as Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant retread, where Cage’s scenery chewing added to the destruction on display. Here, the damage is visible, yet muted, mostly in the background or behind the eyes of the actors.

 Mist is directed by (semi) acclaimed european film maker Bertrand Tavernier, the draw of post Katrina shooting seemingly too tempting to ignore. It doesn’t feel like a Tavernier film (apart from being a thriller), much less a european one. There is a suspicion of studio interference, it never got an American theatrical release and was released across europe in two cuts. The pace zips along, revalations come thick and fast and character’s emotions turn on a dime (sic). The languid drawl of New Orleans and it’s star could maybe have been served better with a more stately pace, ramping up the tension slowly and building to the boil.

As the indignities put upon Robicheaux and the victims of the cases mount up so too does Robicheaux’s interpretation of the law. After refusing to plant a weapon to protect himself he, almost instantly, descends into Jack Bauer, whatever it takes, territory. Evidence is planted, people (John Goodman) are tortured for information and no one (least of all Robicheaux) bats an eyelid. Not even the green behind the ears Mexican FBI agent assigned to work the case objects to Robicheaux helping her out by placing a weapon in a dead guy’s hand. Given that Robicheaux is technically investigating a crime covered up by the Police in less racially aware times this stinks of high hypocrisy and goes close to causing a sympathy abandonment of the protagonist. As always though, Jones pulls us through (except in Cobb, now that guy was an arsehole) with a shake of his head and a fervent belief in what’s right is right in the end, we’re still rooting for him as he hugs his long suffering wife.

The problem with making crime thrillers that attempt to dovetail two seemingly unconnected crimes into one conspiracy or case is that all roads lead to Chinatown. The elegance, vitality and spite of that timeless film casts a long, long shadow. In the Electric Mist is not a poor thriller then, it’s a competent one just not a superior one as the superlative goes. In the end though, it’s just not Chinatown.

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