There are several versions of Bertrand Tavernier’s “In the Electric Mist” floating about, appropriately enough given the title. Don’t know which one I’ve just seen but it is safe to assume that they are all as confusing. I would advise avoiding trying to tie together the several story lines, sitting back and enjoying the New Orleans setting, the great performances by John Goodman, Peter Sarsgaard and, mainly, Tommy Lee Jones, in top form.
I haven’t read any of the Burke thrillers about detective Dave Robicheaux (Tommy Lee Jones) and they may make some sense but not here, which is all right as the film still manages to be very entertaining. As far as I can tell, there are four stories. One, Robicheaux tracking down a serial killer. Two, the connection between Robicheaux and a movie star (Peter Sarsgaard) and his crew shooting a film in the bayou. Three, the murder that took place some forty years ago, witnessed by the young Robicheaux, of a black man sleeping with a white woman. Four, the apparitions, linking the past with the present, of Civil War era soldiers and their general.
Tavernier, a veteran French director, author of, among others, the superb “Round Midnight” and “Coup de Torchon,” also peppers the story with comments on the shoddy post-Katrina reconstruction or lack thereof, the general corruption and mob connections—this is New Orleans, after all. How does all this work? It doesn’t, except for Tommy Lee Jones’s performance pulling everything together. Tavernier had trouble nailing the actor down, what with conflicting schedules, managing a polo team in Florida and other obligations. One shudders to think what “In the Electric Mist” would have been without him. But there he is, very much so, redeeming this interesting muddle of a movie and leaving us with a question. How can this stony, craggy face manage so many expressions (a range of scowls with exactly one barely-etched smile) and convey so much? This is what great actors do.