In 1996, Phil Joanou made a very decent (and underrated) adaptation of one of James Lee Burke’s Louisiana-set “Dave Robicheaux” crime novels, Heaven’s Prisoners. Starring Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux, the movie had vivid characters, excellent performances and some intriguing and surprising plot developments that elevated it above its genre. Sadly, Bertrand Tavernier’s adaptation of another Robicheaux story doesn’t repeat the earlier film’s success. In fact, In the Electric Mist (2009) is a hopelessly incoherent thriller that squanders the talents of some great actors, among them Peter Sarsgaard, Mary Steenburgen, Kelly Macdonald, Ned Beatty, Pruitt Taylor Vince and John Goodman. (Tommy Lee Jones, taking over from Baldwin as Robicheaux, is solid enough, but it feels to me that he’s been giving variations on this performance for a long, long time.)
The garbled story - updated to the 00s in order to incorporate some pointless Katrina references - attempts to mix a standard serial-killer-of-prostitutes mystery with Robicheaux’s memories of a 60s race crime (the link between the two plot strands remains indistinct) and - oddly - the protagonist’s fantasy conversations with Confederate General John Bell Hood (Levon Helm) who seems keen to help him solve the case. There’s a movie-making strand to the story too: a Civil War epic is being filmed in Iberia Parish; this leads to one of the film’s few witty touches: a cameo from John Sayles as the movie’s producer. (There's also some incidental enjoyment to be had from the outrageous character names. Top prize goes to Beatty as one "Twinkie Lemoyne." )
Unfortunately, Sayles’s cameo also makes you wish that he was at the helm of In the Electric Mist. I’ve found some of Tavernier’s French films odd and unfocused and their problems just seem intensified here. The director ladles on the Louisiana atmosphere, yet the movie never finds its tone and feels inauthentic throughout. Admittedly alot of these issues might not be Tavernier’s fault: apparently the movie was re-cut by the studio and a longer version is in existence. Whatever, someone’s made a mess of this gumbo. The 30 minute Making Of doc is much more entertaining than the silly, confused movie.