Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In the Electric Mist

I haven’t read many of James Lee Burke’s Louisiana-set crime novels featuring recovering alcoholic Deputy Sheriff Dave Robicheaux – something I intend to rectify – but the unifying aesthetic seems to be threefold: (i) slow-burn narratives; (ii) convoluted and multi-stranded ploting, often spanning different timeframes; and (iii) a juxtaposition of deep-rooted morality with protocol-defying acts of (necessary?) violence. Burke’s prose is precisely crafted and carries weight. He writes thinking man’s genre fiction.

So it’s regrettable – if depressingly understandable given mainstream American cinema’s tendency to dumb-down – that Burke and Robicheaux have been poorly treated in terms of adaptation. First out of the trap, in 1996, was Phil Joanou’s ‘Heaven’s Prisoners’, a heart-in-the-right-place attempt to capture the atmosphere and complexity of Burke’s second novel. At two and a quarter hours, it took its time negotiating the source material, but the last act still seemed rushed and awkward. Nor did Alec Baldwin’s performance ever quite suggest the Robicheaux of the novels. A good supporting cast – Eric Roberts, Teri Hatcher, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Mary Stuart Masterson – kind of got lost in the background.

Total silence on the silver screen Robicheaux front for thirteen years, then Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘In the Electric Mist’ starring Tommy Lee Jones, John Goodman, Ned Beatty, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Peter Sarsgaard, Kelly Macdonald and Mary Steenburgen went, inexplicably, straight to DVD. Stop and ponder that concept a moment. Bertrand motherfucking Tavernier, one of Europe’s most respected filmmakers – a man whose CV includes the definitive jazz opus ‘Round Midnight’, Dirk Bogarde’s poignant swansong ‘These Foolish Things’, and the drumtight policier ‘L.627’ – directs Tommy Lee motherfucking Jones – two years after his encomium-laden performance in ‘No Country for Old Men’ in a James Lee motherfucking Burke adaptation and for some weird-ass reason the world didn’t sit up and take notice.

It’s fair to say, then, that something went wrong. Maybe more than one something. Let’s break it down. The biggest something was that old how-to-ineffably-ruin-a-movie standby, producer interference. This in itself is peculiar, since most of the credited producers and executive producers had previously worked either with Tavernier on his French-language films or with Jones on his fantastic directorial debut ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’. Whatever the reason, some twenty minutes got chopped out of the film, leaving various subplots unresolved, questions unanswered, characters unaccounted for and no clear correlation between the narrative’s fifty-years-apart timelines. Apparently Tavernier’s approved cut won an award in France, which tells you all you need to know.

Other possible contributory factors (mere opinionism on my part): Jones, while a better fit for Robicheaux than Baldwin, is too old for the character; Tavernier lacks the engagement with regional culture that an American director might have brought to the project; and the big quasi-surreal set-pieces are blandly conjured. Here’s a good place to consider the title. ‘In the Electric Mist’ is a neither-here-nor-there contraction of the novel’s moniker, ‘In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead’. In its full iteration, it’s a gnarly piece of dimestore poetry. Robicheaux’s pursuit of a multiple murdered who targets hookers plays out against the filming of a Civil War epic in his jurisdiction. A plot twist sees him drugged, after which he experiences hallucinations of Confederate leader General John Bell Hood (woodenly played by Levon Helm). Electric mist = the falsity of cinema. Confederate dead = Robicheaux’s ghostly confidante/advisor. To be fair, it would take someone like David Lynch, Terry Gilliam or Alejandro Jodorowsky to visualise this kind of thing and make it work and headfuck the audience so that they never forgot it.

All of which probably sounds like I’m writing ‘In the Electric Mist’ off. But that’s not what we’re about here at The Agitation of the Mind. And while ‘In the Electric Mist’ remains a flawed piece of work by any set of critical perameters, it still has several things going for it. First and foremost, Mr Tommy Lee Jones. Too old for Robicheaux: yes. Not badass enough for Robicheaux: hell, fuckin’ no. Tommy Lee Jones represents an old-school tradition of film stars who vibe tough-guy authenticity offset by an internalized suggestion of psychological unpredictability. Jones, in other words, is heir to the tradition of Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. And there are enough scenes in ‘In the Electric Mist’ where he channels their traditions and iconography while never losing sight of his (again internalized and suggestive) personification of Robicheaux.

Moreover, Jones is an incredibly generous and adaptive actor. Watch how he plays off a seasoned performer like Pruitt Taylor Vince, each of them interweaving into the other’s dialogue. Then look at his scenes with Justina Machado, easing back to allow her character the moment, then re-insinuating himself at the crucial point. Of his scenes with Goodman, I’ll say nothing more than settle back with a big and prepare to grin like a lunatic. These guys mix it up and kick it around and create cinematic alchemy.

While it might not add up, critically or narratively, to much more than a bunch of unanswered questions and redacted subplots, ‘In the Electric Mist’ galvanises most often than not when it takes up the mantle of a character-driven piece that’s interested in the dynamic between married man/adoptive father and hair-trigger-tempered authority figure one step away from vigilantism. Maybe one day it’ll be reappraised. Maybe a producer with a certain vision will greenlight another Robicheaux movie. I have no idea who would play him – could Michael Fassbender pull off a convincing Bayou accent? – but the fact remains that the definitive James Lee Burke adaptation is still out there, waiting for the right creative team.


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