I've been looking forward to Bertrand Tavernier's Into the Electric Mist starring Tommy Lee Jones (and a stellar cast of supporting actors) since we first ordered it last month. Jones, who has become the go-to actor when a tough and taciturn southern lawman is required, once again shows his professional chops in a variation of a role he's played several times now. Fortunately, he's been able to avoid self-parody by bringing something new to each of his recent sheriff pics. The film is based on a popular series of novels written by James Lee Burke about a Louisiana lawman named Dave Robicheaux.
The film, shot in 2007, was originally slated for a big theatrical release but something happened in the editing of the final picture and the whole thing drifted off into obscurity. It becomes evident about 40 minutes into this direct-to-DVD release why the film couldn't find a distributor. To do the story and characters justice, it would have had to have been about 5 hours long. I did a bit of research on the history of the film and found out that 2 cuts exist, the 102 minute release that we watched and a longer 117 minute version that was slated for its theatrical release. I'm not sure that the extra 15 minutes would have made much difference but the second half of the DVD cut is fatally rushed and contains an out-of-left-field final shot that needs to be ignored (and is not in Tavernier's longer cut). It's too bad that they released the abridged version on DVD.
Notwithstanding the production and distribution problems that undermined this film, there is something of a flawed but compelling film buried in the final result. I would hazard a guess that picking the 6th book in the series was key to the production's troubles. The cast of interesting characters that inhabit Robicheaux's world of bayous and Parishes are obviously richly complex in the novels but here end up simply underwritten. I'm not sure why they didn't start with an earlier novel. Into the Electric Mist reminded me of the 1995 Walter Mosley Easy Rawlins flick Devil in a Blue Dress, another near-miss adaptation of terrific source material.
All that being said, I sat down to write something entirely different about this film and specifically about Tommy Lee Jones. Jones seems to have a nose for finding roles set in middle America. I'm not sure why (or if) this matters but I find each of his recent films fascinating because of the continuity of his everyman characterizations. There is something unique and intriguing about Jones. He serves as a bit of an antidote to the youth-centric blockbuster comic book fare that forms the bulk of Hollywood's output these days. His recent roles in No Country for Old Men, In the Valley of Elah, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and now this film all share a similar haunted, sullen quality that I believe speaks to some larger issues Jones might be articulating about modern American society. I'd go as far as to say that Jones has come to define a kind of neo-western genre where good and evil play out in shades of gray instead of black and white like the westerns of yore. While truth, honour and virtue are harder to define in our ethically diminished modern world, Jones' characters are often still capable of holding the high moral ground and doling out justice when necessary. The characters he embodies are blunted and worn down by facing a world with too many bad guys and too much moral ambiguity. These characters are also often very much alone and alienated from their peers. Having recently watched Taken, the new Liam Neeson revenge flick, I was struck by how much more realistic and effective Jones' run down version of vigilante justice is.
Into the Electric Mist is a film that will, with good reason, fade into obscurity because of its fatal script and pacing flaws but I think it's a valid and worthy film if kept in perspective. It's like a really good cable TV movie, the Tom Selleck Jesse Stone series comes to mind. The fact that it could easily have been a fantastic film and they somehow missed the boat is a crying shame.