James Lee Burke’s popular Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux comes to the big screen for the second time. Alec Baldwin played the role in 1996’s dismal HEAVEN’S PRISONERS, which at least received a theatrical release from New Line. Despite the excellent cast, headlined by Tommy Lee Jones as yet another world-weary cop on his resume, IN THE ELECTRIC MIST ended up straight to DVD in early 2009.
While actors Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kelly Drummond (Kelly Macdonald) work on a new film by director Michael Goldman (an unbilled John Sayles, wry casting) in the nearby swamp, Robicheaux investigates the murder of a teenage prostitute. FBI agent Rosie Gomez (Justina Machado) speculates the killing is the latest in a series of seventeen similar murders, which she’d like to tie to local gangster Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni (John Goodman).
Another case preying heavily on Robicheaux’s mind involves a skeleton found buried near the location where Goldman is shooting his Civil War drama. Robicheaux thinks the body belongs to a black convict who was shot during an escape forty years earlier, but the white authorities then had no interest in investigating the incident. The connection between the two cases is what drives the narrative.
Director Bertrand Tavernier’s introspective approach to the mystery, while involving, is likely what kept the movie out of theaters. No car chases or exploding buildings, though Robicheaux does bust a head or two. Jones can play this type of character in his sleep—and maybe he did—but the flowery narration, languid pacing, and veteran cast may have scared the distributor into an under-the-radar release.
None of the above observations should be regarded as faults, by the way. For the most part, IN THE ELECTRIC MIST, based by screenwriters Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski on a Burke novel (the Kromolowskis also penned the very good THE PLEDGE, a somewhat similar crime drama directed by Sean Penn), will keep you guessing. The second half gets a little choppy in the rush to tie all the ends together, but fans of hardboiled mysteries should find enough here to enjoy. Tavernier could have used a better technical advisor, as his vision of criminology appears to have come from ‘40s movies.